It was my intention to celebrate the sandwich when I started this column early last year by finding as many tasty examples as possible. The emphasis was on fringe styles, but also presenting sandwiches that were considered normal 30 years ago that now seem quaint. I have done this weekly, and periodically presented round-ups of the ones I consider best. In light of the crisis, I have also detailed a version of sandwich I tried at home.
The French dip sandwich was invented in Los Angeles at one of two competing restaurants: Phillipe the Original or Coles P.E. Buffet. Both places claim to have pioneered it sometime between 1908 and 1918. The sandwich features a chuck roast that’s been boiled, sliced, and stacked on a demi-baguette (the “French” part) that’s been dipped in cooking juices. Yes, the sandwich is slightly soggy, but in a good way.
As one origin story goes, a toothless man walked into a restaurant, sadly eyeing the beef sandwiches being made. He couldn’t eat them because the bread was too crusty and hard, so he asked that the loaf be dipped into the juices pooled under the roast to soften it up, and thus the “French dipped sandwich,” or French dip, was born.
The origins of the French dip are more Irish than French, and the sandwich has always had a working-class air about it. The closest we’ve ever come is at Brennan & Carr, an Irish restaurant founded in 1938 in Sheepshead Bay, when the surrounding area was mainly farmland (as pictures on the wall attest). It makes similar sandwiches dipped in broth, only instead of a baguette, the bread is a Kaiser roll. So, should we call ours an Austrian dip?
For more than a decade, New York City restaurants have tried to knock off the Los Angeles original, but most have done away with a critical part of the original concoction by not dipping the bread in the broth before serving — instead serving it only as a side for dipping. Close to a half-dozen restaurants have done this.
Most recently Maison Pickle, an offshoot of the Upper West Side hit Jacob’s Pickles, jumped into the French dip game. I tried it for my sandwich column before restaurants were shut down to dine-in customers, and as of now, it’s still available by delivery or takeout from the restaurant after 4 p.m. daily by calling (212) 496-9100, or by going to its website.
As with several of its competitors, the sandwich here is served with broth on the side rather than dipped. Serving the broth separately might sound like a good idea, but it’s really a mistake. Doing it that way means that most consumers will treat the assemblage like a plain roast beef sandwich.
Maison Pickle seems to encourage that, too, by using premium roast beef baked medium-rare. For $22, there’s a vast wad of it tucked into a baguette brushed with mayo. Sea salt applied at the last minute glistens, and a mustardy happy face underlies the sandwich. Yes, the broth on the side is very good, but who is going to disassemble the sandwich and dip the surfaces of the bread into the broth? Even if you were to try, it would be difficult given the narrowness of the bowl.
The restaurant offers three further attempts at the sandwich that are even more elaborate, including one that comes with caramelized onions and gruyere fondue. There’s even a $39 French dip incorporating foie gras, making the sandwich a little too French for my taste. It’s still not quite a French dip, but to its credit, Maison Pickle serves a very nice roast beef sandwich with bone broth on the side.
But as the novel coronavirus has penetrated every aspect of our lives, and we’ve learned to cook most of our meals at home, it occurred to me, why not make our own French dips? I set out to do just that.
The restaurants that try to make them invariably err on the side of luxury, so I decided to go purely plebian. I went to my local deli and requested a quarter pound of roast beef — you know, the kind that comes shrink wrapped in plastic. I also bought a kaiser roll (the deli didn’t have demi baguettes), and a carton of beef broth.
I poured the broth into a shallow skillet, waited till it boiled, and then swished the beef in it with tongs. After it had turned gray and wadded, I removed the beef and turned off the heat, then cut the kaiser roll and dipped the halves in the broth. Finally, the sandwich was assembled. And damned if it didn’t taste really good: beefy, salty, and squishy — though I missed the kind of oblong burnished roll that’s served in LA.
Still, our Austrian dip makes a very nice lunch without much work, n’est-ce pas?