Two LA establishments claim to have invented the French dip, circa 1918: Cole’s P.E. Buffet (once the dining room of a street-car terminal), and Philippe the Original (an equally ancient lunchroom selling hot sandwiches on the fringes of Chinatown). Both field conflicting stories for the sandwich’s origin, but Cole’s tells the best:
A toothless old man stumbled into the café one day and despondently eyed the pile of hard rolls being used to make sandwiches, worried he wouldn’t be able to eat one because most of his teeth were missing. He pleaded with the sandwich maker to first dip his roll in the meat juices that were pooled below the roast in its steam table receptacle. The next guy in line thought that sounded like a good idea, and he requested the same thing. And the next, and the next— thus was the French dip born.
Over the last five years, New York has seen a revival of this sandwich, offered at such toney boîtes as Minetta Tavern, Hearth, Les Halles, and Walter Foods. Naturally, all these examples substitute rare roast beef for overcooked, and a high-quality roll or demi-baguette for the original hard roll, and they offer a homemade broth on the side. Now, a fresh contender has appeared: the Ludlow Hotel’s Dirty French, as part of a new lunchtime sandwich menu that also offers a banh mi, a lamb burger, and an open-face ham tartine. A friend and I visited late last week to check out the French dip.
But a brief digression first. Though the name of the sandwich has "French" in it, there’s really nothing intrinsically Gallic about it, except perhaps the bread the sandwich is served on. (No self-respecting French person would cook a roast beef well done!) The origin of the sandwich in Los Angeles corresponded to the era when there was a craze for French bread in bakeries across the country, so that French dip really means "French-bread dipped," and the sandwich itself represents an attempt to substitute this new type of roll for sliced bread in sandwiches.
In fact, the sandwich of roast beef dipped in pan juices is probably Irish in origin. Pay a visit to Brooklyn’s Brennan and Carr, a structure on Avenue U that looks like a cross between a Tudor house and a Civil War stockade. The restaurant was founded in Sheepshead Bay in 1938 when the neighborhood was still mainly farmland, as photos inside the eatery attest. A sign outside says "Hot Beef" and indeed the specialty of the house is a roast beef sandwich cut from a giant gray roast pulled from a steam cabinet, each sandwich provided with a cup of liquid called "broth" for the purposes of dipping. So maybe the French dip should be called the Irish dip. Similar steamed-meat sandwiches were available until recently at Blarney Stone-style bars all over the city.
It’s somewhat comical that, in its quest to offer all things French, the French dip should be mistaken for French at Dirty French. Its version ($23) features a modest pile of sliced-thick roast beef, pink in the middle and underpinned with caramelized onions. Along with horseradish sauce, these ingredients are stuffed in a length of sourdough baguette that’s as hard as rocks — doubtlessly calculated to wrest the dentures from mouths of anyone wearing them. No amount of dipping in the copious broth on the side — which tastes like bouillon cubes — can soften such a hard crust. Really, the sandwich is similar to the other upscale renditions around town, though the beef is tastier at Minetta Tavern, where the roll is a good deal less challenging.
We also tried the banh mi ($17), which fared better. That hoagie is stuffed with duck confit, various pickled vegetables, cilantro, cornichons, and enough foie gras to boast of it on the menu, though it seems to provide more lubrication than flavor. The modest contribution of this sandwich to the banh mi canon lies in the stuffings being diced fine rather than shredded, which makes the elements taste somewhat more powerful — and makes them easier to chew. So if you see a toothless guy at the next table, direct him away from the French dip and toward Dirty French’s banh mi. Dirty French, 180 Ludlow St, (212) 254-3000; dirtyfrench.com.