Stories vary, but nearly everyone agrees that the French dip was invented in Los Angeles around 1918. It coincided with a national craze for crusty French bread. Some say it started when a toothless old man wandered into a streetcar-terminal café and, seeing the baguette that the brisket sandwich was made with, asked the waitress to soften the crust a bit by dipping it in meat juices. Another tale involves a Frenchman in charge of a popular dining room near the railroad station. As monsieur was assembling a roast beef sandwich, he accidentally dropped the bread into a vat of au jus, and the customer—a cop, who suspiciously happened to be named French—decided to eat it anyway. The soggy result was forever after referred to as a French dip. Either way, it achieved countrywide popularity over the ensuing century and became a bona fide American classic.
The irreducible components of the original sandwich included sliced, well-done roast beef or boiled brisket, a crusty demi-baguette, and a dip of beef consommé, into which the cut surface of each half of the longitudinally sliced loaf was briefly immersed. The French dip has had a fainter presence in NYC, usually offered at diners and Irish bars, where it has usually been served as roast beef on a hero or a Kaiser roll with a bowl of thin gravy (often just dissolved bouillon cubes) on the side. But in the past couple of years, the sandwich has enjoyed an uptick in popularity, revived and reformulated in bistros. Having tried the competing early versions in Los Angeles at Cole’s P.E. Buffet and Philippe, the Original (respectively, the two sources for the stories above), I decided to compare them with modern NYC evocations.
Walter Foods—the second, recently opened branch in Fort Greene (166 Dekalb Avenue, Brooklyn, 718-488-7800)—prominently offers a French dip on its menu ($18), which comes with herbed fries. Served on a length of sourdough baguette, the contraption features cut-up skirt steak (a rather predictable and somewhat disappointing substitute for the roast beef or boiled brisket of early versions) on a length of sourdough baguette. Although no dipping has been done before the sandwich is served, a bowl of agreeable broth is provided on the side. While the bread choice makes the thing really chewy, sometimes causing the contents to cascade onto the plate, dunking it in juices does little to soften the rubbery crust. Not a bad bar sandwich, but not a real French dip, either.
Offspring of East Village bistro Joe Doe, Joe Dough (135 First Avenue, 212-780-9222) is a stall-size sandwich shop that also features a reconfigured version, dubbed the L.E.S. (for Lower East Side) French dip. Tongue fried on a griddle is the substituted meat—which, it turns out, is a perfect cognate for overcooked roast beef that modern foodies would probably never accept. At Joe Dough, the bovine glottal organ comes caramelized around the edges and piled on a too-soft brioche roll. Underneath the meat, find lettuce and horseradish mayo; above is a strange orange slaw concocted of raw horseradish. The accompanying broth is much better than it needs to be, though it’s physically impossible to dip the piled-high sandwich in it. I recommend treating it as soup. While not an authentic French dip, the sandwich ($10, tax included) is so good I went back and ate it again the next week.
Until recently, Brasserie Ruhlmann in Rockefeller Center offered a comically upscale version ($25), using prime rib, onion jam, fontina cheese, watercress, and horseradish mayo, among other ingredients. I eagerly sought it out as a species of culinary freak show, but when I dropped by in mid January, the sandwich had been eighty-sixed from the menu. Williamburg’s Marlow & Sons has also offered the French dip as a special from time to time ($12). But when I called the restaurant on three occasions in the past few weeks, the woman who answered the phone said, “Not today.” Nevertheless, a photo on Yelp shows an undipped length of baguette with sliced beef piled on it and what looks like raw spinach with a bowl of broth on the side. At least it looks pretty tasty.
After these two failures to score the sandwich, I consoled myself at Waterfront Ale House (540 Second Avenue, 212-696-4104), a long-running Kips Bay place with an intriguing list of craft-brewed beers and a fine hamburger. The French dip, though, was anything but fine. It scored points for being served on a regular baguette, featuring a good-sized wad of beef within. I had the sliced cheddar and deep-fried onion put on the side, so that dipping the thing in the accompanying bouillon was at least possible. As it turned out, they would have been improvements—since the meat was stone cold and none too tasty. Had it been warmer and fresher, this could have been a contender.
I came closest to the authentic article, at last in theory, at Hudson Diner (468 Hudson Street, 212-627-9191) in the West Village, one of perhaps two dozen diners in town that serve the French dip. Regular baguette? Check. Consommé on the side? Check. Well-done roast beef? Check. Unfortunately, the meat—which was abundant—was old and skanky-tasting, and the gravy floated little bits of congealed crud. The bread had been brushed with garlic instead of gravy, which was not a bad idea, but taken in its entirety, the sandwich was awful.
I wish that some smart chef would go back to the original sandwich and doll it up slightly with superior, caramelized-on-the-edges roast beef or an unctuous brisket, either baked or boiled. Actually, since 1938, we’ve had a reliable facsimile of the French dip in Brooklyn. The venue is Brennan and Carr (3432 Nostrand Avenue, Brooklyn, 718-769-1254), a landmark at the corner of Nostrand Avenue and Gravesend Neck Road, which was built when this part of the borough was mainly farmland and country lanes. The building looks like a Tudor cottage, with a rustic wooden sign that beckons “Hot Beef.” The place makes its sandwiches ($5.50) on Kaiser rolls pre-dipped to sogginess in consommé and loads them up with tender, long-steamed roast beef.
The sandwich set me thinking: Given the place’s name and the way the meat is cooked into oblivion, the assemblage at Brennan and Carr certainly seems Irish, rather than French. (My Irish grandmother cooked her beef that way when I was a kid.) Yet it was probably partly inspired by the faddish L.A. French dip, being identical in every respect save for the bread choice, leading me to believe that the first story of the French dip’s origin is true: The sandwich is so named not because anyone Gallic created it, but simply because it was made with a baguette.
The inevitable conclusion: L.A.’s celebrated French dip is, at heart, an Irish sandwich.
Addendum: I’d finished this piece and turned it in when a close friend called to tell me that she’d just eaten a spectacular French dip at Minetta Tavern (113 MacDougal Street, 212-475-3850). “But it’s $24 and only at lunch,” she’d warned, “I hope that’s not out of your price range.” Oh, what the hell, I thought as I jumped on my bike and pedaled over there. The restaurant’s vibe at midday is way more laid-back than the scrum of supplicants one finds in the evening, and I was given my own comfortable table with a view of the kitchen.
I immediately ordered the sandwich, styled Minetta French dip, and was pleased to see the price also included fries. When it came, I couldn’t help but let out an admiring sigh. The thing was ensconced in a baguette-size bun, and I could see a wealth of pink roast beef sticking out the sides. The halves had been brushed with meat juices, with an extra teacup of lubricant provided. When I bit in, my mouth was suffused with rich, beefy flavor and a stealthy taste of garlic butter. I also noted that fresh horseradish had been grated on top of the meat.
Altogether, it was the best French dip I’d eaten either here or in L.A. and well within the canon as so defined (except for the doneness of the beef). Well, I thought as I wiped the lovely gravy from my lips, if Irish cooking keeps evolving in this manner, maybe someplace will soon be offering Irish haute cuisine.