Topophilia Au Jus

Wherever I go, near or far, my hometown of Los Angeles is just a meal away.  I have only to stop into a diner and one item on the menu, “invented” in Los Angeles, transports me home as surely as I am to stop perusing what’s on offer and order it, knowing that amongst Angelenos the origin of the sandwich is a matter of great debate.  Los Angeles is a city without traditional seasons, and where December is, counterintuitively, better beach weather than June because of everyone's summertime friend Coastal Eddy — a local atmospheric phenomenon which sees everything from the Santa Monica Pier to the Inland Empire blanketed in a thick layer of clouds called Eddy’s sisters “May Gray” and “June Gloom” — so Angelenos need something to talk about besides the weather.

Basically, a French Dip is a gorgeous, wet mess of a French roll stuffed to overflowing with hot roast beef (and nothing else) and dunked once, twice, or thrice in the jus (meaning “juice”) given off by its own cooking — the familiar term au jus simply means “with juice.”  Prepared properly, the roll is dunked (to taste) for you by the chef, but it is more common that a ramekin of hot jus is served alongside the sandwich allowing it to be dunked at the diner’s pleasure.  That said, a bitter rivalry exists between Cole’s and Philippe's — both in downtown Los Angeles — with both of them insisting they invented the sandwich.

I’ll begin with Cole’s, because their claim is to have invented the sandwich a full ten years before Philippe’s.  Cole’s is actually Cole's Pacific Electric Buffet, the oldest restaurant and bar continuously operated in the same location in the city of Los Angeles.  Cole's owners claim that the sandwich was invented at their restaurant in 1908.  According to Gitti Beheshti, co-owner and manager of Cole’s interviewed by The Los Angeles Times“Mr. Cole was German. He had a friend that was a chef working here. He was in the kitchen when someone wanted a sandwich, then the bread fell into the beef juice and they liked it. The other customer in line behind him asked for the same sandwich.”  Um, but Mr. Beheshti wasn’t born until 1941, and the Times article indicated that he bought Cole's in 1989; in other words, he had no first-hand knowledge of what fell where, when.  There is no record of the nameless chef or even an old newspaper article linking the restaurant with the sandwich beyond its iconic sign (above), designated a Los Angeles Historic-Cultural Monument in 1989.  The entire body of evidence in favor of Cole’s seems to be an unverifiable story passed down among employees and gullible patrons.

Which brings me to Philippe’s.  Philippe’s was founded by Philippe Mathieu, a French immigrant born in 1877 who made his way to Los Angeles in 1903.  At 617 Alameda, he opened Philippe's restaurant and delicatessen in 1908.  It was there, ten years later, that the first French Dip was made.  The family that bought the business from Mathieu in 1927 called the restaurant “Philippe The Original,” and serves upwards of 1900 French Dip sandwiches a day at their only location — 1001 North Alameda Street.  That much we know for sure.  Now, we have the cop story, the fireman story, the other fireman story, and the pork (yes, pork!) story, pork dressed with pickles, onions, and olives (wait, WTF?… pickles, onions, and olives?):

  • The cop story:  One day in 1918, while making a roast beef sandwich for a cop walking his downtown beat in a hurry, Philippe inadvertently dropped the sliced french roll into the roasting pan filled with juices still hot from the oven.  The policeman who couldn’t wait for another to be made said he would take it anyway, and when his fellow officers back at the precinct tried it, a sandwich was born.
  • The fireman story:  Same as the cop story, but it was 1917 and Philippe was hurriedly making a roast beef sandwich for a fireman.
  • The other fireman story:  In a 2008 Los Angeles Times interview, Philippe Mathieu's own grandson, Philippe Guilhem, told a different version of the fireman story:  “One day a fireman complained that his roll was stale. It was probably a Monday and the roll was a leftover from the weekend. My grandfather was a thrifty person. He said, 'Give me the damn thing back.' He dipped it in the juices and said, 'You happy now’?”
  • The pork story:  On the occasion of Philippe's relocating to make way for the Hollywood Freeway, The Los Angeles Times interviewed Philippe Mathieu in 1951.  He said:  “One day a police officer asked me if I would mind splitting one of these large loaves of French bread and filling it with 'some of the delicious roast pork.’ I was not too busy, so I said, 'Sure.' Then he asked me to 'please cut it in half. I've got a friend outside who can eat it.' Then he asked for some pickles, onions and olives. Then we started making French-roll sandwiches for those who had smaller appetites. One day a customer saw some gravy in the bottom of a large pan of roast meat. He asked me if I would mind dipping one side of the French roll in that gravy. I did, and right away five or six others wanted the same.”

But what about the name?  The obvious, easy answer, if we dismiss Cole’s claim (as I do), is that Philippe Mathieu was a French immigrant from France in a city and at a time when that would lend anything he did a certain notoriety.  “The French guy with the deli on Alameda makes a delicious sandwich you’ve just gotta try.”  “Oh yah?  I’ll try it next time I’m downtown.  What’s it called?”  ‘Roast pork dipped in gravy’ doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue, but ‘French Dip,’ so-named because the guy dipping it was probably the only person with a French accent in town, does.  Remember, Henry Cole was German!

‘French Dip’ was also most likely a double-entendre.  Around 1898, women's fashion advertisements began promoting dresses with what was referred to as a ‘French dip’ — the waist of a dress was cut below the normal belt line to give the woman a more slender and, it was thought, more attractive appearance. Dresses, and later both men's and women's jackets featuring a French dip were said to give the wearer a thinner appearance, and while delicious, the French delicatessen owner had the last laugh because a gravy-laden pork sandwich is just about the last thing that is going to slim down a waistline.

Among each of the stories about the invention of the French Dip, the one told by Philippe Mathieu in 1951 is the most convincing as it is a first-person account unlike the others, it lacks a neat-’n-tidy Bingo! moment, and even allows for the sandwich to develop as times and tastes change.  So if you find yourself in Los Angeles, skip the obvious tourist traps and dip into history at Philippe The Original with its sawdust floors and taste a French Dip the way it was and is meant to be.  Be prepared to wait in line.  There is a unique style of service at Philippe’s that dates back to its opening, in which lines form in front of the long deli-display counter at each of the “Carvers.”  Each Carver has everything needed to prepare your meal, including salads, soups, and chili.

Philippe The Original carvers color

The plates are paper and the service is fast-paced.

Should you happen to decide later you want a slice of pie, you will find a line to the right of the Carvers with a host of “non-sandwich” items to perfectly compliment your meal.

Philippe’s is a timeless piece of Los Angeles history, an experience as much as it is a place.  I don’t get back to my hometown — the city at the center of Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep —  as often as I would like, but when I do I stop here, half expecting to see Philip Marlowe in the line.

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