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Culinary Clash #3: L.A.’s Best French Dip

January 27, 2011 5 comments

The French Dip sandwich.  Maybe Los Angeles’s most famous contribution to the culinary world.  Thinly sliced meats lovingly paired with a crusty french roll and served “au jus” (with the natural juices that collect in the pan during cooking).  Usually the bread is dipped prior to serving but some prefer to dip while eating.  Pre-dip or self-dip, the French Dip is a fine example of The Fun Foodie’s mantra, “Less is More”.

There’s not much doubt that this popular sandwich was birthed in L.A..  The controversy comes with trying to figure out exactly which “hospital” gave it its first spank.  A gamut of legends have emerged.  They range from a simple accidental falling of bread into the pan, to the appeasing of a customer complaining about stale bread, to the kindness of a chef helping a patron with sore gums.

Clash #3 is between the two purported originators of the French Dip: Philippe’s and Cole’s.  Both are 100+ year old institutions with ardent defenders.  But that’s where the similarities end.  Philippe’s is bright and bustling, rather large with a casual feel.  Cole’s is dark and subdued, yet cozy with a retro charm.  Philippe’s menu is extensive, offering a wide range of classic American comfort foods.  Cole’s is straightforward, sandwiches and sides.  I take it as a kind of “in your face” brashness that says, “we’re so good at what we do we don’t need to try to be anything else.”

Philippe's pork dip with potato salad.

Philippe’s roasts huge bottom round roasts for their beef dips.  I was shocked to learn that fact on the Travel Channel.  I had already experienced Philippe’s and it was truly one of the best sandwiches I had ever eaten.  The problem is that bottom round is one of the cheapest cuts of beef you can buy.  And for good reason: it is awful.  The flavor is bland at best (livery, usually), and it is a terribly tough and dry piece of meat (a heavily worked muscle at the animal’s hind quarters with little fat).  I have no idea what Philippe’s does, but they do it right.  They somehow transform a bargain cut into something fit for gourmet consumption.  All it needs is a touch of their house-made hot mustard (be careful, it is really hot!).  As awesome as the beef dip is, we actually like the pork dip even more (they also offer ham, lamb and turkey).

Cole’s uses a much better cut of beef, the brisket.  It is the go-to slab for corned beef, pastrami and Texas BBQ.  It has big, beefy flavor and melt-in-your-mouth succulence when cooked properly (low and slow).  Most foodies would agree that this would give Cole’s the upper hand right off the bat.  I walked into their historic building expecting a clash of titan proportions.  But it wasn’t really that close.  Cole’s beef dip was good.  Very good, in fact.  The meat was tender and flavorful, the bread had that classic crusty exterior, and the “jus” was nice.  Philippe’s is just better in every facet of “French Dip-ology”.

Cole's beef dip. Good, but not quite good enough.

Philippe’s array of creamy side salads are all very good.  Plus, you can get a good cup of coffee for nine cents!  At Cole’s, we had their bacon potato salad, which was extremely good.  If this had been a potato salad clash, Cole’s would’ve scored a knock out.  But this was a battle of L.A.’s finest, the famous French Dip.  Regardless of who actually invented it…

Philippe’s is the best.  Hands down.

Philippe the Original on Urbanspoon

Cole's on Urbanspoon

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