French Dip, or Roast Beef Regret

Philippe French Dip.jpg

Recently I took a short break from intense and gratifying work with 25 theater and arts critics in Los Angeles, at the NEA Institute in Theater and Musical Theater, and avoided lunching yet again at the gastronomically hypnotic Lazy Ox Canteen. Instead, I strolled on a gorgeous bright day from our Little Tokyo hotel past Olvera Street, bathed in hubbub and jacaranda light, to Philippe the Original, the not-original, post-WWII site of one of the oldest restaurants in Los Angeles. I had mentioned Philippe — everyone calls it Philippe’s — to my hungry colleagues on an earlier tour through nearby Union Station, but we hadn’t the time for a visit. My goal now is to add roast beef regret to an illuminating afternoon.

There’s no easy or original explanation for my dogged fascination with food eaten in the past. For years I have collected defunct menus, and each of them, especially the most modest, conjures an actual lunch or dinner for me, right there on the table, served with a Kodak smile. Of course, that smile is a long-dead thing, and the piping hot meatloaf or buttery sole almondine or juicy fried chicken with beaten biscuits set with such ease before us have long ago found their various ways to oblivion.

Yet we are hungry every day, and food is always new. So here there they are again as always, my grease-hot, half-dollar treats, pre-Hiroshima sustenance, tasting of Hollywood’s bottle-blond innocence and unworried by the chemical, political cynicism that properly clouds every thoughtful 21st-century meal.

How perverse can it be to love the past, when love of any kind is so dear, so hard to come by? Perhaps I would have hated being stuck in the 1920s or ’30s, always wishing for some freedom that the spaceship future would bring. But even the future of the past seems to glow, compared to the future of now.

Philippe the Original, Los Angeles.jpg

So I cross the dangerous street and walk into Philippe’s, all by myself. Being alone is an advantage in a lot of eating situations, especially when you wish to be a kind of spy, stationed in a foreign place.

Harsh sun outside, no hint of that within. Stools under long, high, worn wooden tables made for communal eating fill the main room, lined perpendicular to the counter at which you stand on one of a half-dozen lines to order your food. Walk among the diners and through the threshold up to that counter, and turn the clock back 50, 60 years.

Who are the folks here with me? A donut-box assortment of language, color, age, dressed in such a noncommittal fashion that you can’t really tell time or place. Money simply does not define this ordinary, murmuring clientele. Is that sawdust on the floor? (Who nearby still cuts wood?). No one comes here to spend. Everyone is here to eat.

Not long ago, a close friend dismissed as tasteless and worthless the “overdone” sliced beef that makes a Philippe’s French Dipped sandwich. Well, she’s wrong, completely and utterly. It’s not underdone or overdone. It’s exactly in the middle, unconcerned.

“Hi. I’d like a beef dip.”

“Single or double?”

Double means more dip — in a light and natural pan-juice. They dip in advance and don’t provide a monkey dish filled with salty brown broth for you to play with, as some other L.A. French Dip places — uh, Cole’s — do. Phillippe claims to have invented this fetching wetting technique in 1918, but Cole’s Pacific Electric Buffet, in its original downtown site, also fights for that distinction. You can read about their old, mild rivalry here. No contest in the result.

Philippe customers at counter.jpg

The white-haired lady serving me indicates by magic mental waves that only fools get double beef juice. When you order, you say “beef” because there’s also pork, ham, lamb and turkey to be had. I guess they’re good, but who would want lamb or turkey juice dampening that nice roll? She has gloves on, and stands in charge of a metal tray of just-sliced meat-portions from the back. She dips each piece of bread herself.

It’s not soggy. Double is soggy.

Because the beet juice-pickled eggs in giant glass jars sing their ruby song, I ask for one, and also get a cole slaw side. The touted mustard at the table (in squeeze-bottles, no more glass pots) is almost too hot and dominating, so I merely test it to be sure it’s the same.

Philippe beet-pickled egg.jpg

What kind of lunch is this? That’s not a simple question. First, no matter where the beef is from, it’s real cooking, the result of a series of specific marketing and kitchen decisions made over time, not a preprocessed idea turned to profit. You could make it anywhere, I suppose, but the beef sandwich is dipped in this very location on North Alameda as much as it’s dipped in the jus. The meal’s affordable — beef is $5.75 — but not so cheap as to lose its value, its identity.

Because of the food’s “realness,” it knits together the many customers with a sort of edible honesty. There’s a shared, civic sense that this restaurant and its food  should be here, and surprisingly little nostalgia for old times or mourning that this may be the last of its kind.

I am biting into warm, moist beef on a roll.

I am so peaceful, so pleased, so removed from my age, that I can still taste it.

Philippe staff (old photo).jpg
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Comments

  1. j gold says

    Although the gestalt of the Philippe’s French dip cannot be denied, it is kind of a bland, gummy thing, redeemed mostly by the superhot mustard with which it is customarily garnished. (The one bite I took of the beef dip at Brennan & Carr, the ancient Brooklyn equivalent out near Sheepshead Bay, was promptly spit into a trashcan.) I do like Philippe’s weirdly good wine list – it is possible to get a glass of Silver Oak cab with your sandwich for a very reasonable price.
    But Cole’s has always had the better sandwich – even, maybe especially, before it was spiffed up a couple of years ago: better meat, better roll, better cheese, and jus substantially tastier than the fortified salt water used by its competitor. Is the jus served on the side? Sure. That’s why they call it a French “dip.”

  2. says

    Many thanks, Jonathan, but agreeable critics may differ, and, having eaten at Cole’s a few days later, I jus disagree. J.

  3. Clyde in Calgary says

    Five generations of my family have eaten there, the first three also at the old location (which I don’t actually remember, as it would have been in the late forties). I can recall one late morning in the mid fifties when I saw the mayor in one part of the place while at a table not that far away there was what we then called a “wino” (seems archaic now) drying out.
    I always order the same thing–beef dip and potato salad–and I’ll never order anything other than these. Maybe I would if I were to live in LA again (it’s been 50 years).
    Coffee was 5 cents seemingly forever; the price was raised–maybe over a dime–but there must have been a reaction because it went back down, though it may be 8 cents now, or some odd price close to that.
    I won’t hear a negative word about the mustard. Yes, it’s strong, but a little bit is just right for the sandwich and the potato salad–which is the best I’ve ever eaten.

  4. says

    Great mood, pace and flavor to this evocative post, Jeff. A couple of priceless, almost Chandleresque bits, too:
    “affordable…but not so cheap as to lose its value…”
    “It’s not soggy. Double is soggy.”
    I think the nearness both of Philippe’s to Union Station and your voice to timber of LA transience contributes to the feeling of travelling back.
    In New York I knew the French dip sandwich as “roast beef au jus.” I checked urbandictionary.com and let’s just say it’s not safe to use that term anymore.