Double-dipped lamb sandwich at Philippe’s The Original
The French dip sandwich is to L.A. what the cheesesteak is to Philly, and what the poutine is to Quebec – a trashy, iconic local specialty that seems less inspiring than it is.
What is it? Basically it’s a soggy meat sandwich. You can get it with roast beef, roast pork, leg of lamb, turkey or ham. It is served in a nice crispy bread roll and – here’s the gimmick – dipped in natural roast gravy. You can order it single-dip, double-dip or wet, corresponding to the amount of gravy you want on the bread. “Wet” is probably the way to go. And yes, it’s tastier than it looks.
Why do they call it a “French” dip? This is a good question, especially as roasts are traditionally very British. It bears no ressemblance to anything I have seen in France, nor to the roast beef sandwiches sold in Quebec. It does bear a slight resemblance to the traditional Quebecois Hot Chicken (pronounced “ott-shi-keuhn”), but no direct link. Its Frenchness comes from supposed inventor Philippe Mathieu, a Frenchman who migrated to L.A., where he apparently came up with the idea for the sandwich around 1918.
His restaurant – Philippe’s the Original – is still around today, located in a dense ghetto area north of downtown near L.A.’s sad Chinatown. This restaurant is the best part of that area, with an old-fashioned atmosphere, sawdust on the floor, and cranky staff.
Another restaurant also has a credible claim to the French Dip’s invention, but no Frenchman to show for it. Located in downtown L.A., Cole’s is a bit more upscale but just as old fashioned. I didn’t try their French Dip, but they do make a proper Sazerac cocktail, and the faux-speakeasy out back does an even better job.