California is the birthplace of many iconic dishes and drinks, from cioppino to mai tais to the fortune cookie. So The California Report Magazine decided to look into the origin stories of some of those classics with a new series: Golden State Plate.
“You can get the same dish that your grandfather and your great-grandfather and your ancestors had,” says Chris Nichols. He’s been writing about L.A. culture for over 20 years. “At Philippe’s, you can get that sandwich and it’s just beautiful and simple and authentic and real and great!”
Philippe’s is just down from Union Station on the southern edge of Chinatown. It’s a blue-collar area bordered by train tracks, the mighty Terminal Annex post office building and small shops in humble brick-and-mortar structures that date back to the 1920s.
“A lot of the same people who are buying that sandwich today are the types of people who would have bought it a century ago,” says Nichols.
“You get city employees and workers and you see garbage men and you see people in suits. People from every walk of life are coming in and out of that place enjoying the history and authenticity and the realness of it.”
Stepping inside this cavernous, former machine shop feels like an older Los Angeles. There’s a bank of wooden phone booths, glowing neon clocks on the walls, sawdust covering the floors and long communal tables where customers perch on stools, often eating next to strangers.
There’s no music in the place, just the easy ebb and flow of conversation.
There are no waiters either. You line up at the deli counter where a row of women in classic waitress uniforms, known as carvers, wait to take and make your order.
And if you walk in and get a French dip today, it’ll be one of the 19,000 sandwiches served up this week. They’ve been doing this for a while.
“We were open for 10 years until the French dip was actually created, and it was an accident,” says Andrew Binder. He’s a fourth generation managing partner who literally grew up in the restaurant. The carvers were his babysitters. In 1927, his great-grandfather bought the place from Hypolite Philippe Mathieu, who opened it in 1908.
“Philippe was carving a sandwich and the French roll fell into the pan drippings of some meats that were being roasted,” continues Binder. “The customer was in a hurry. We used to think it was a policeman, but we were actually told by a relative of Philippe that it was a fireman. That customer came back the next day with friends requesting the sandwich being dipped, so that really is the birth of the French dip."
Gloria Camacho has been a handmaiden to the French dip for over 25 years.
“I’m a carver,” she says of her front-line duties. "We slice the bread, we slice the lamb, the pickle." Camacho is part of am all-female staff of carvers.
And for customers who aren’t French dip veterans, Camacho reveals the different ways to dip your beef, lamb, pork, ham, turkey or pastrami sandwich.
“They ask us, what does it mean, dip? It just means how much moisture you want on your roll," she says. "You can get dry, single, double, wet, meat on the side, the roll on the side, cut in half, cut in thirds, for here or to go, so there’s a couple of options."
The lines are growing as breakfast transitions into lunch. Eric Woods is in the queue, gazing at the cream pie, cheesecake, potato salad, pickled pigs' feet and other delights under the deli counter glass as he inches slowly toward his carver.
It’s a wait he’s used to.
"I’ve been coming since I been like 10 years old," says Woods. "I’m 53 now. I just like the atmosphere. Family atmosphere. With no headache."
The tradition of Philippe’s French dip is deep and vast, but they’re not the only place in town claiming the sacred birthright.
Cole’s, also open since 1908, maintains the sandwich had its first au jus baptism in their kitchen.
“I have my own theory as to why Philippe’s might be the originator as opposed to Cole’s,” offer Chris Nichols. “It’s simply that Hypolite Philippe Mathieu was born in France, and Harry Cole was a German, so maybe that’s why it’s a French dip because it came from a Frenchman.”
It’s not exactly a Beatles vs. Stones rivalry, and fans of both sandwiches can always agree on at least one thing: the sturdy, humble French dip is a proud creation of the City of Angels.