I don’t mind eating a sandwich, and strangely, I love bread. However, when two slices of even the most delicious, crusty, chewy, fragrant bread are slapped on either side of meat, cheese, and vegetables, I don’t love it the way some people luuuuurve it. I take the sandwich apart and eat the insides, piece by piece, then eat the bread separately. Sometimes I get spontaneous and do it the other way around, with the bread first. It’s not even that I feel the proper, princess-y need to use a fork. I’ll go right ahead and pick up a slippery roasted red pepper, a messy leaf of arugula dipping with dressing, a slimy, fatty slice of meat, with my fingers. No, it’s not about decorum and manners.
I’m just not a sandwich girl (unless it’s a pastrami Reuben, in which case, you can just call me Dagwood XL).
But I couldn’t let my non-love for sandwiches stop me from trying Philippe the Original in downtown LA, the home of the original French Dip – a sandwich of thinly sliced meat shoved between the halves of a crusty French roll that’s been dipped in the greasy, meaty, flavorful juices that have collected in the bottom of the roasting pan.
Everyone talked up Philippe the Original French Dip to me. When they find out I had not yet been there, their eyes widen and their mouths hang agape. Woman, are you mad?!?! How could you live in LA and not have tried the French dip sandwich at Philippe’s?!?! Get thee downtown! Everywhere I looked, the reviews were glowing. No, they were shamelessly gushing, as if the restaurant had paid them off with marketing dollars. Everywhere I turned, someone was raving about the roll, the beef, the jus, the place. Not only is Philippe’s an institution, but the sandwiches are so incredibly amazingly fantabulawesoyummylicious!
I had great expectations for Philippe the Original. How could I not? But....there was a big “but,” and I don’t mean my big, fat behind that's spreading faster than Hollywood gossip.
French Dip is not new to me. However, a proper French Dip, and one that calls itself “the original,” is new to me. You see, my sister Jenn has had a lifelong love affair with French Dip sandwiches that started with Arby’s. Yes, Arby's. Since I haven’t set foot inside one of those 100-gallon cowboy hat-topped restaurants in years, I couldn’t tell you if they still have it on the menu, but if they don’t now, at some point in its history, Arby's served its fast food, processed “meat,” just-add-water-to-this-powder concentrate jus (that's French for "jus") version of a French Dip that certainly never really allowed you to “dip,” since the jus comes in a tiny plastic condiment container the diameter of a silver dollar. In case you’ve forgotten, an Arby’s sandwich is much bigger than a silver dollar, so your French Dip was actually a French PourJusOntoYourSandwich. I am familiar with French Dip, but didn’t indulge in them much, opting instead for the much tastier Beef N’ Yellow Vinyl.
Surely Philippe the Original would be better than Arby’s.
We went there for lunch. Dinner would have been a possibility since Philippe is open until 10 PM, but I am not hip to downtown happenings after dark, especially near Chinatown. Hey, I don't mean to offend if C-town is your 'hood. I just don't know that area very well, and much prefer to navigate unfamiliar, scary, ghetto, freaky locales during daylight.
Philippe had a lot going for it from the outset because they have a parking lot. It's not ample parking, and nothing as fancy as the "2 spots left!" warnings on each level of The Grove, but parking availability is a huge plus. We parked and trotted around the corner to the restaurant. I have to admit that though I am not a sandwich girl, I was a little excited. Just a little.
The restaurant is sunken a few feet below ground level, so when we walked in, we got a good landscape view of Philippe's. If ever I doubted the originality of the sandwich, at least I could be assured that Philippe's location sure was original. The place, the decor, the furnishings, the staff, even the operational process flows at the counter were about a bazillion years old.
Ambience (or lack of), outdated decor, even crumbling architecture never bothers me (that much). But bad process flow makes me want to whip open my laptop, start up Visio, and go through a flowcharting exercise. There is just one long counter at Philippe's with somewhat crusty women set at evenly spaced intervals. However, there is no single line. In fact, it doesn't even appear that there are multiple lines. It's just one big clusterpoo of waiting people, wild-eyed and watchful, shifting their visual aim from one register to the next to see which one will open. I hate the uncertainty. I hate free-for-alls. I hate wondering if I am next "in this line," or if I am "next overall, in any line." I hate having to punch an 80-year-old lady when she "cuts" in front of me, pretending like all she wants to do is see what's in the case. Yeah, right.
I didn't punch anyone, but I hate thinking that I might have to.
The menu at Philippe's is fairly simple. Pork, beef, ham, and turkey are all the same price. Lamb costs fifty cents more. Addition of various cheeses also cost a few cents extra. Philippe also has tuna sandwiches and cheese sandwiches, but who eats a tuna sandwich at Philippe's? And if that's a French-dipped tuna sandwich, that's just nasty. Everyone recommends the lamb sandwich, but I don't eat cute baby animals. Besides, you never get all kinky the first time. I ordered a plain beef French dip from the young lady behind the counter.
Philippe's also offers daily soups (that's the "soup du jour" in French), salads, and traditional deli sides. I wasn't really in the mood for pickled pig's feet (!!!). I know, it must have been some crazy hormonal thing, so we went with a macaroni salad.
The best part of Philippe's is their drinks list. A cocktail would have been awesome at noon with a sandwich, but Philippe's only has wine and beer. I ordered a glass of wine, which is dispensed from what looks like a combination vending machine and wine tap. That is awesome. Now here is where the operatinal proces flow really needs a $600 per hour strategy consultant like myself. The woman who took our order also poured our drinks, then put on a pair of gloves, ran back to refresh her stainless steel tray of meat, changed her gloves, then dipped each slice of bread in jus, made our sandwiches and slapped some macaroni salad in a small bowl. We were standing at the case the whole time a little unclear as to whether we were supposed to wait there since she hadn't taken our money yet, or retreat from the case to allow the next customer to step up. We waited. She removed her gloves and took our money from us. The whole thing was inefficient and irritated the process efficiency geek inside me.
We sat down at one of many long, narrow, burgundy Formica-topped counter/tables, and that is when I spotted the golden angel. I hadn't even tasted the sandwich yet, but I ripped it open, revealing its thick, glistening meatiness inside. Without thinking, led only by instinct, I slapped that meat with a good spoonful of mustard, smearing and slathering the golden goodness from edge to edge. I might even eat fois gras if it were covered with mustard.
I bit slowly through the French roll which was crusty, but rather dry. Understandably, the bread has to be slightly dry in order to soak up more jus. I chewed. My mouth, and I imagine my face, went from 0 to 60 in 15 seconds on the Scoville scale. The mustard wasn't just hot; it was fire. Let me say that one more time. The mustard was fie-yer. It cleared my sinuses so hollow I could have shined a flashlight up to my brain. I had to throw my head back to keep tears in my eyes from falling. My nose started to run. I had the back of my left hand held up to my nostrils, my other hand still holding the sandwich. I was a weeping, mustardy mess.
And I kept on eating. The burn was too good, only relieved every once in a while with a tiny sip of wine. Red wine seems to pair perfectly with a completely sterilized sense of taste and smell. Lovely.
The macaroni salad was made with little fat cylinders, not the usual elbow macaroni. The shape was cute and reminded me of some sort of Italian soup I've had once, but the taste was just *eh*. In fact, it tasted like noodles mixed with Miracle Whip. Or maybe that's all I could taste with my now mustard-induced tongue de-sensitization.
Overall, Philippe the Original French Dip sandwich was good, but I don't think I' need to brave the downtown traffic for it. The mustard on the other hand? I am hot for Philippe's mustard.
Philippe the Original
1001 N Alameda St
Los Angeles, CA 90012
** a year ago today, my babycakes went retro disco coconut **