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.
Although the south has done little to advance progressive thought in the United States, they were progressive on at least one front: hash browns. Southerners were combining potatoes, cheese and gravy long before Quebec even thought about poutine. Although the result is nothing like poutine, hash browns are fantastic nonetheless. Keep in mind that the stuff you get down south tastes nothing like the deep-fried potato croquettes that pass for hash browns back home.
A few years ago, a friend told me he’d had the best meal of his life at the Bluebird Tavern in Burlington, Vermont. Needless to say I was skeptical. That’s a pretty big statement. He was setting up unrealistic expectations and I was bound to be disappointed.
Nevertheless, I still checked it out on my next trip to Burlington. As it turns out, he wasn’t too far off the mark. I ate an innovative dish of baked ricotta in pumpkin sauce and a perfect burger. The Bluebird tavern blends the British gastropub tradition with the locavore sensitivities of Vermont. Even though it is housed in a suburban cottagey bungalow that looks like some nausea-inducing multinational chain of country delis, there’s a subtle yet sophisticated big city atmosphere inside that offers a welcome contrast to the general hippie-student-yoga vibe in town.
New York is a city with a strong deli tradition. It is therefore quite surprising that Zagat’s highest rated New York deli is a Montreal-themed place named Mile End. I suppose there’s no arguing when comparing a chewy Montreal bagel with its bulky and stiff New York counterpart. Throw in a Wilensky special, smoked meat sandwiches and matzo ball soup and you can’t go wrong. But that’s not what drew me to this restaurant. I wanted to see if the high Zagat rating translated to a perfect poutine.
Right off Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn’s Cobble Hill, Mile End differs from your average Jewish deli. Don’t expect the retro fittings, crammed shelves and noisy service of Schwartz’s or Ben’s (or Katz’s). Instead, you get a cozy-yet-welcoming minimalist Scandinavian atmosphere, white walls and varnished blond wood. A few jars of artfully displayed pickled vegetables in the window provide a nod to more traditional delis.