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Home of L.A.'s Big Dippers

October 11, 1998|S. IRENE VIRBILA

L.A. restaurants tend to come and go faster than the season's new sitcoms. Restaurant guides, even from just a few years ago, list dozens of places that have closed. The famous old names--Perino's, Scandia, the Brown Derby--are all gone, though Chasen's has been revived after a fashion. That's why the remaining establishments that date back to the early part of the century are to be treasured. I can just about count them on one hand: Musso & Frank, the Original Pantry, Les Freres Taix, Pacific Dining Car, and, yes, Tommy's . . .

This past week, Philippe the Original, the self-proclaimed "home of the French dip sandwich," celebrated its 90th birthday. Despite moving a number of times, it has retained the essential spirit of the original. To mark the milestone, for a single afternoon last Tuesday, prices at the beloved Alameda Street restaurant were rolled back to 1908 prices--10 cents a sandwich--creating something of a mob scene as the line stretched around the block. Even at today's prices, though, Philippe's is a bargain. And great fun to boot.

The first time I went to Philippe's, during my first month in Los Angeles, I decided to become a regular. I loved everything about the place. The sawdust on the floor. The no-nonsense waitresses behind the counter, some of whom have been working there for decades. The long communal tables, where you sit on stools and rub elbows with Angelenos from every walk of life. The row of phone booths against the wall, where a young guy dropped in a coin and hunkered down for a long, comfortable conversation. The candy counter stocked with all the old-fashioned goods. And, just by the door, a scale to ascertain whether that humongous slice of lemon meringue pie did any real damage.

I ordered my first French dip--beef. As I prepared to bite into it, my friend said, "Wait," and asked the baseball fan at the other end of the table to please pass the mustard. That's Philippe's own ripsnorting house mustard. I slathered it on too exuberantly, I soon realized. But what a great sandwich! It had just the right proportion of soft, tender bun, soaked in the roast's juices, to finely sliced meat. And that powerful dose of mustard brought the flavors into sharp focus. Of course, I also had to have some coleslaw--coarsely grated cabbage, nice and crunchy in a creamy dressing. For dessert, my friend suggested the coconut cream pie lavished with coconut shavings. It was the kind of gooey extravagance I hadn't indulged in since I was a kid. But it wasn't just nostalgia. This was a terrific version of an American classic. And even with a glass of puckery homemade lemonade, my share of the bill didn't begin to break into double digits.

Since then, I've gone back again and again. Sometimes for an early supper before a movie, more often for lunch with colleagues. I've tried the lamb, pork and turkey versions of the hallowed sandwich. Each of the meats tastes as it should, which is saying a lot. I debate the point back and forth, but right now the lamb is my favorite, closely followed by the pork. Moist roast turkey (introduced as a heart-healthy choice) makes a light, delicious sandwich, too. The slippery pink ham, however, doesn't seem to go with the beef jus.

From the yellowed newspaper clippings on the wall, I've learned how Philippe's was started in 1908 by Philippe Mathieu, a French emigre from Aix-en-Provence. Philippe's was originally a deli where customers would buy a roll, some sliced meat, a pickle and condiments and make their own sandwiches on the spot. It wasn't long before Philippe's was offering its own sandwiches. Mathieu's big break came in 1918, when he accidentally dropped a roll in a pan of the roasting juices. The customer reportedly came back the next day and asked that his sandwich be "dipped" exactly the same way. Thus was born the French dip. (For the record, another venerable downtown establishment, Cole's on 6th Street, claims the invention for itself.)

If Philippe's had to rely on just the pan drippings for its French dip sandwiches, it would run out before noon every day. In fact, Mathieu early on complained to a Times reporter that "the small amount of gravy in the pan didn't last. But it put me wise. The next day I made a gallon of the gravy--and we still ran out of it." Today the jus is still made the old-fashioned way, by simmering a stock of beef bones, celery, onions and other vegetables overnight and enriching it with pan drippings and meat trimmings the next morning. The restaurant needs a lot of it because Philippe's sells about 14,000 sandwiches a week.

Whoever developed the recipes for the salads got everything just right. Potato salad is firm and creamy and not overdressed. The real surprise is how good the macaroni salad is. The pasta isn't cooked to a mush, and the fine, piquant dressing is laced with pickle and celery.

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