Join us as we explore the origin of the French dip sandwich and get a special behind the scenes look at where it all began. With offices in LA, we here at ALLEZ Entertainment are big fans of Philippe The Original. It is a Los Angeles institution and one of the oldest and best-known restaurants. But is it really the original? And is it actually French?
Is the French Dip Sandwich actually from France?
Let’s dive into the French part first. Leah, in our Paris office, scanned the bars, cafes and brasseries near and far and just could not find a French dip sandwich in Paris! So why is it called that?
A Finding France research trip to downtown LA was in order. (And a great excuse for a delicious lunch!) We had to find the origin of the French dip sandwich.
It turns out that Philippe was the name of the original owner, French immigrant Philippe Mattieu. He started the restaurant in 1908 in a part of Los Angeles that was then known as Frenchtown. Yes, Los Angeles had a Frenchtown.
Most people don’t know that many French settlers came to Los Angeles in the early 1800s and they were responsible for much of the city’s early growth. In fact, at one time, French was the second most spoken language in LA after Spanish!
If you want to know more about Los Angeles’ Frenchtown and find more landmarks that have survived, check out our episode Finding France: The Secret French History of Los Angeles. It is truly fascinating.
Anyhow, back to Philippe and the beginning of the French dipped sandwich.
Origin of the French Dip Sandwich
First we looked at Philippe’s web page. It says, “One day in 1918, while making a sandwich, Mathieu inadvertently dropped the sliced French roll into the roasting pan filled with juice still hot from the oven. The patron, a policeman, said he would take the sandwich anyway and returned the next day with some friends asking for more dipped sandwiches. And so was born the French dipped sandwich, so called either because of Mathieu’s French heritage, the French roll the sandwich is made on or because the officer’s name was French. The answer is lost to history.”
However, when we sat down with Philippe’s present owner and general manager, Richard Binder, he had a different story to tell about the origin of the French dip sandwich. And it comes from a very interesting source. We don’t want to spoil the fun so watch our video Finding France: The Origin of the French Dip to hear his version! We are inclined to like it even more!
You see, Binder’s grandfather and his two brothers purchased the restaurant from Philippe Mattieu in 1926. It became a unique gathering place for people in the downtown area. But Binder told us that today’s restaurant is not on the original location. When urban renewal came to LA, Frenchtown became a victim. Philippe’s was forced to move down the road to make way for the new Hollywood Freeway (US-101). Philippe’s was relocated to its present location on North Alameda Street in 1951.
Check out Finding France: French History of Cinema in Hollywood for more little-known LA/France connections.
Watch the Episode
Making of a Philippe The Original French Dip Sandwich
Meanwhile, in today’s kitchen Binder’s son, Andrew is brewing up giant vats of the secret au jus that they use for the famous dip.
“This is how we make our au jus,’”Andrew told us, as we took in the sights and inhaled the amazing aromas. “It’s a very traditional stock of vegetables, spices and throughout the day all of the meat trimmings go into these giant pots. Water, beef bones, all simmering. The final product comes out looking very dark and is packed full of flavor. We make about 50 gallons a day and we go through it all in one day! That’s why we dip the sandwiches for you. We don’t serve the au jus on the side. But if you insist, we do set aside a small portion that you can request until it runs out.”
Andrew ushers us over to the giant ovens where huge cuts of beef are roasting.
“The meat is cooked on a mirepoix. It’s a bed of vegetables.”
Mirepoix is a long standing cooking technique in French cuisine. It creates flavor cooking diced vegetables, usually onions, carrots and celery in butter or other fat. It is not sautéed quickly, but cooked very slowly on a low heat. The idea is to sweeten the ingredients rather than caramelizing.
Andrew explains, “The roasts cook for about three to three and half hours. We turn them two to three times while they are cooking. And besides resting on the bed of vegetables they are topped with just garlic and rock salt. So it’s simple. Its how we have done it forever. The recipes haven’t changed. It’s Philippe’s original recipe, of course!”
“Each evening he will take the pan juices and combine it with the stock in large vats. The next day it will be the dip for the sandwiches.”
Andrew puts a bit of the fresh au jus in a small cup and takes a swig.
“Very dark, very rich. A lot of saltiness and a lot of beef flavor. I have to taste it every day to make sure it tastes good. It almost has like a healing power, but that’s just me and my crazy mind,” he chuckles as he slurps another taste.
Much more than Beef
Meanwhile, out front, hungry crowds are forming long lines between the picnic-style tables. They can choose the roast beef sandwich or get a lamb dipped, a ham dipped, a pork dipped, a turkey dipped and even a pastrami dipped! On average, Philippe’s sells two thousand sandwiches a day and on busy weekends they can sell over three thousand! But don’t worry; with ten carver stations open, they can move the lines quickly.
There are also all kinds of sides, salads and soups. On top of the carver station counters are giant jars of purple pickled eggs. They are purple because of the added beet juice. Yet another of Philippe’s original recipes that is still going strong.
And speaking of strong, Andrew says you must try their hot mustard.
“Another Philippe’s recipe we are very well known for is our mustard. It’s French mustard. It’s on all the tables and it compliments the sandwich very well. It’s a nasal burning hot mustard that we make here three to four times a week. And we sell it online. It has a cult following so people put it on their sandwich here in the restaurant and you will see it burns their nostrils and then you see them go for it again and again. People just like to torture themselves.”
Philippe’s is also famous for their homemade deserts. From October to June they serve baked apples, another Philippe recipe. But there is also red velvet or German chocolate cake, fruit and cream pies and even tapioca pudding that claims to be “just like mom used to make.”
If you are in downtown Los Angeles, check out Philippe The Original. Not only is it a darn good sandwich, it’s a slice of history and a taste of French influence mixed with hometown America. It’ll taste even better now that you now the origin of the French dip sandwich. ALLEZ!
Find France for Yourself
Philippe The Original
1001 N. Alameda St.
Los Angeles, CA 90012