it has long been argued who is the originator of the french dip sandwich: cole’s pacific electric buffet or philippe the original? both were established in downtown los angeles in the year 1908, and both claim to be the original. philippe’s website claims it wasn’t invented until 1918 when,
while making a sandwich, Mathieu inadvertently dropped the sliced french roll into the roasting pan filled with juice still hot from the oven. The patron, a policeman, said he would take the sandwich anyway and returned the next day with some friends asking for more dipped sandwiches. And so was born the “French Dipped Sandwich,” so called either because of Mathieu’s French heritage, the French roll the sandwich is made on or because the officer’s name was French. The answer is lost to history.”
whereas cole’s website doesn’t tell a story, but still lays claim. regardless who invented it, i was curious as to who does it better?
i only live a few blocks from cole’s and have had their pastrami french dip a few times, but never the one from philippe’s. before going to moca’s art in the streets exhibit for my second time, a few of us met at philippe’s for a late lunch. i thought this will be the test. i had been once before in my early days of living in los angeles, way before living downtown, and definitely before i knew of the debate, but i seem to remember i just got a turkey sandwich.
you place your order from one of the ‘carvers’ at a counter (similar to katz’s in nyc, but less deli and more diner) and they make your sandwich right in front of you. there is sawdust on the floor, booths or short stools at communal tables to sit at, and often before a dodgers game you will see quite a few fans (including the opposing team) come in to get food.
as it turns out, they don’t have pastrami at philippe’s, so i ordered the beef, with a side of macaroni salad and a pickle.
it was probably twice the size of cole’s, and they pre-dip the roll in the jus, instead of putting it on the side. my first bite told me it was way too salty, and i didn’t like the pre-dipped aspect. frankly, it just makes the bread soggy. i liked the quality of the meat, but it was too thickly cut for my taste, and halfway through, i was wishing they offered half sandwiches, or at least the jus on the side so i could take the rest to go without it being a mushy mess later. the pickles were good, nothing spectacular, but the macaroni salad was delightful, reminding me of something my grandmother once made.
since they didn’t have pastrami at philippe’s, that meant i had to go back to cole’s and try their beef in order to do a direct comparison. so, the next day i got on my trusty steed and biked over for lunch. (side note: sit at the bar. it is the only place i have received decent service. the bartenders are really knowledgeable and very nice. the table servers are either really understaffed or just bad at their jobs.)
i ordered the original (beef) french dip, otherwise known as the little dipper, and a side of spicy garlic fries. one pickle wedge is complimentary, extras are $.91.
the only difference between the little dipper and the big dipper is the amount of meat they put on the bread. the loaf is the same size. they also have a skinny dip, which is half a dip with a side of fries. fyi, the fries come in a basket and are big enough to share. happy hour from 3-7p has the skinny dip for only $5, but i seem to remember the portion of fries is smaller and not in a separate basket.
i have to say even though cole’s beef was good quality and sliced thinner than philippe’s, it was a bit bland. perhaps it was just in contrast to how salty philippe’s was, or maybe that the pickles and fries at cole’s are extremely spicy in comparison, but i wont order it again. i prefer the pastrami, which has the right amount of flavor, thinly sliced meat, and jus on the side. although, i must say i enjoyed the macaroni salad at philippe’s as a side compared to the fries at cole’s.
philippe’s wins a price comparison hands down at $6 for the sandwich, $1.20 for a side of macaroni, and $1.10 for a whole pickle. cole’s little dipper is only $6.38, but in order to come close to how much meat is on philippe’s you’ll have to order the big dipper (and still doesn’t have as much meat as philippe’s) which is $9.11. a side of fries goes for $3.19. personally, a little dip or half a big dipper is enough for me especially with a side, but if quantity is important, you’ll have to pay for it.
so, as far as which beef french dip is better? philippe’s is too much meat, too salty, and soggy, whereas, cole’s is sparing on the meat and bland, but at least the jus is on the side, and i could always add salt. i guess i’d vote for cole’s, but i’ll stick to the pastrami, and swing by philippe’s for a side of macaroni salad.