Everyone agrees that the soggy beef sandwich called French dip first appeared in downtown Los Angeles nearly a century ago. What causes consternation is the nagging question of who invented it. A pair of competing institutions claim credit, each offering a different story.
Philippe, the Original occupies spacious corner premises just north of Union Station, featuring sawdust on the floor, long communal tables flanked by high stools, and a line of countergals in starched beige uniforms, who wear surreal brown hats that nestle in their hair like birds. A pair of free parking lots makes it easy for tourists, Dodgers fans, and food writers to zip in and out, and the walls are plastered with accolades from periodicals. As its story goes, founder and French native Philippe Mathieu was preparing one of his popular beef sandwiches in 1918 when he dropped the bread into the broth. The customer, a cop, wanted the sandwich anyway, and the next day he returned with a bunch of chums, all of whom demanded the “French dipped” sandwich. They called it French—according to the restaurant’s website—because of the founder’s nationality, the kind of roll the sandwich came on, or the policeman’s patronymic. Unbelievably, he was named Officer French.
Cole’s P.E. Buffet enjoys a less salubrious location. When it was founded in 1908 as a bar catering to riders at a nearby streetcar terminal (P.E. stands for Pacific Electric), it was situated in a prime downtown area. Now the neighborhood is a cheesy wholesale hub that the city evasively calls the Toy District, combining elements of a bustling Mexican border town with a world-class skid row. Cole’s reminds you of a Blarney Stone—a subterranean Hibernian dive where late in the afternoon the intrepid customers are more likely to be hoisting pints of stout than beef sandwiches. In fact, the eponymous buffet is by then a horror show of desiccated stuffed peppers and crusted-over mac and cheese. As Cole’s tells the story, one day soon after the place opened, an old codger came in and, complaining of weak gums, asked the chef to dip his bun in meat juices to soften it. Soon everyone was asking for a “dip sandwich.” The French part was ostensibly added by customers to designate the type of bread. This story rings true, partly because French bread had been recently introduced into this country, causing quite a sensation.
Back at Philippe’s, the sandwiches ($4.40) are assembled from pre-sliced and portion-controlled beef. Though the meat is cardboardy and gray, the crusty bun and fierce horseradish mustard partly redeem the assemblage. When I ordered the competing Cole’s French dip ($5.39) the same afternoon, a chef with the pellucid skin and pale demeanor of a saint in a medieval painting had to be summoned from a back room. He yanked a brisket from the steam cabinet and hand carved pieces of irregular thickness, oozing juices and still faintly pink in the middle. Then he dipped each side of the roll in broth using a stubby silver fork. Alongside the overstuffed sandwich he tendered a plastic cup of condiment compounded of dill cucumber chips and short yellow chiles in their combined pickle juices.
Before I even took the first bite, I could predict the result: Cole’s kicks Philippe’s ass. Another conclusion—there’s nothing French about this sandwich but the bread.