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The Big Dipper

April 06, 2008|Charles Perry | Times staff writer Charles Perry can be reached at charles.perry@latimes.com

The restaurant spreads before you, six steps below ground: sawdust floors, lines of people, painted menus and neon beer signs on the walls. The lines--at peak hours there are 10 of them, each up to 20 people long--weave between the tables where scores of others are eating, oblivious to the crush. Pick a line and wait your turn.

When you reach the counter, you don't need to consult the menu on the wall, of course. You've been here before. You make it short and snappy--"Beef, double dip. Coleslaw, blueberry pie, coffee."

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday, April 23, 2008 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 41 words Type of Material: Correction
Philippe's: In the Los Angeles Times Magazine's April 6 issue, a caption with an article about Philippe the Original misspelled the last name of a woman who has worked at the restaurant for 38 years. She is Juanita Gonzalez, not Gonzales.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday, May 04, 2008 Home Edition Los Angeles Times Magazine Part I Page 14 Lat Magazine Desk 1 inches; 21 words Type of Material: Correction
Philippe's: A caption accompanying "The Big Dipper" in the April 6 issue referred to Juanita Gonzales. The correct spelling is Gonzalez.

This is Philippe the Original, an L.A. institution that will be 100 years old in October. It has been serving French dip sandwiches--single-, double- and even triple-dipped--for 90 of those years.

Philippe's (as everybody calls it) is in the heart of old Los Angeles. Union Station is a block away; Olvera Street skitters off to the south. Chinatown is in its backyard. And our town would be a different place without it--not just because Philippe's still manages to be one of our favorite restaurants, serving 2,200 to 3,000 customers a day on weekdays and as many as 4,000 on weekends. ("Last Saturday," says Juanita Gonzalez, who's been making sandwiches here for 20 years, "there were so many people trying to get in, they got stuck at the doors.") No, Philippe's special contribution to this town of feverish change is that it is a rock--decade after decade it seems to be the same restaurant your father or grandfather introduced you to when you were a kid.

As always, a woman in a light tan uniform sets to work putting together your order: scooping slaw, dipping both halves of a French roll in jus with a pair of tongs and assembling your sandwich on a thick, gray pulp-paper plate. She'll use the same tongs to pick up a slice of pie, and she'll get the coffee from a counter behind her.

It takes about a minute and a half. You pay cash, but don't try handing the money to her--she won't touch it. Put your payment on a little metal tray, and someone else will return it with your change. Then you'll wander around with your food and choose a seat. You can grab a stool at one of the long common tables, with lines of customers inching forward on either side of you. But if you don't want somebody's elbow in your coleslaw, continue around to the right--there's a spacious room with more common tables and some booths.

Finally, you bite into your French dip sandwich: thin-sliced, well-done roast beef on a slightly crackling French roll sopping with rich meat juices and--of course--freshly made mustard that you have just spooned on the sandwich with care because it's pretty hot.

When you've finished the sandwich, the slaw, the generously filled pie and the coffee, you walk out. Maybe not through the door you came in, because often there are people walking down those six steps (it's nearer to the parking lots), but through the front door, between an old-fashioned candy counter and a rank of antique wooden phone booths. Glowing with contentment, you've just had a quintessential L.A. experience.

Why did you come here in the first place? For those beef, lamb and pork dip sandwiches (the turkey's pretty good too, nice and moist). And, of course, that ultrafresh coleslaw, the house-pickled beets and those gaudy magenta hard-boiled eggs, plucked from a jar of beet juice, the fruit pies, the perfect baked apples (like miniature apple pies without crust), that rare old favorite, tapioca pudding, and the refreshing tart lemonade. I might also say a word for the mild, meaty, old-school chili, a cross between gravy and beef soup, and the tuna sandwich, made with pickle relish the way Los Angeles Unified School District cafeterias did it 60 or 70 years ago.

At any given time, most customers will be having beef dips--Philippe's sells more beef than lamb, pork, turkey and ham put together. But the lamb and the pork versions definitely have their devotees.

Pork is a traditional favorite because it was one of the original dip sandwiches. The meat is irresistibly tender and juicy. Lamb is the only meat sliced at the counter by the "carvers," the women who assemble your meal. The lamb sandwich is the second-biggest seller. It's a lamb-lover's treat: chewy slices (thicker than the other meats) full of the tangy, gamy taste of lamb, softened by the rich meat flavor of the dip.

If I can add my two bits (and I'm backed up by Manager Elias Barajas, who has been working and eating at Philippe's for more than 40 years; he oversees the kitchen), the only sandwich that beats the lamb is a beef dip with blue cheese. It's almost too flavorful to bear.

Talk to some of its 73 employees, and you get the feeling this is a happy workplace. "I like working with the people. It's like a family," Gonzalez says. "Lots of carvers have worked here 22, 25, 29 years." Adding to the family feeling, six employees are second-generation.

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