You probably already know that May is Beef Month. My accountant, my banker, my John Deere salesman and anyone else who gets a piece of me are extremely grateful for your ongoing support of the beef industry. Before you sit down to enjoy another lovely slab of red meat, ask yourself a question. How far would I go to enjoy a meal like this?
Let’s add a certain amount of trivia to the mix before you answer that question. Pick a sandwich, any sandwich. Hey, why not a French Dip for May Beef Month? How far would you go to get a decent French Dip sandwich? Better question. How far would you go to get the original French Dip sandwich?
I’ll save you the trans-Atlantic flight, the miserable currency exchange and the snooty French staff. If you want to get a French Dip from the place where they were invented, go to Los Angeles. More specifically, go to downtown Los Angeles. You will find a place there called Philippe, The Original. You think beef and the first thing that crossed your mind was probably downtown LA, wasn’t it?
According to the literature I picked up at the counter on my trip there in February, the folks at Philippe’s invented the French Dip back in 1918, ten years after they began serving customers. The place was established in 1908 by Philippe Mathieu. While making a sandwich in 1918, he 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. A tradition was born. The oops part of it tends to get overlooked.
This culinary mistake has to rank right up there with, “Hey, you got chocolate in my peanut butter!” “You got peanut butter in my chocolate!”
For my trip to California, I flew into LAX a couple days before the World Ag Expo. My dad’s first-cousin, Jerry, is retired and lives in Pasadena. He picked me up at the airport and told me he would take me anywhere I wanted to go while I was in Los Angeles. One place that Jerry thought I needed to see firsthand was Philippe’s. He had discovered it himself a few years ago when he was on jury duty. Philippe’s sits near downtown Los Angeles. It was just like the background video on LA Law as we made our way to the restaurant for lunch the day I was to pick up my convertible and head north to Hearst Castle via the Pacific Coast Highway.
Jerry was telling me about Philippe’s on the way there and how they had great roast beef sandwiches. My first thought was that it would be sort of a landmark deli, a nice out-of-the-way sandwich shop with some character. When we got there around the end of the noon hour and I saw throngs of people walking in and out of the place, I knew this was no glorified Subway outlet. You walk in at street level and then go downstairs to the restaurant below. It does look sort of like a deli. That is, if your idea of a deli is a place with a couple HUNDRED people in line in front of the counter! There was something like 12 to 15 cash registers in the place. Each one had a line of customers in front of it roughly 15 to 20 people deep. To give it the nice authentic feel of a place that would invent sandwiches, the floor was covered with sawdust. It was just like 1908, not 2008. One other aspect was more like 1908 than 2008. Philippe doesn’t take plastic. It’s cash only. Against the back wall were two ATMs. Yeah, TWO of ’em. By the end of the day, I bet they were just as hot as the stove
Jerry and I stood in line and placed our order after a long wait. The menu wasn’t all that diverse, but it had what I consider to be the staples of a good diet — red meat, coleslaw and PIE! If they wanted to, I’d let them change the name to Guy No. 2’s. I want to be their Jared . . . without the pants by Omar’s Tent & Awning.
Once we got our French Dips, side orders, pie and tapioca, we took a seat and dug in. There was one condiment option on the table that I found quite intriguing. A little mustard hits the spot on a sandwich sometimes. This was no sissy French’s Mustard, though. Jerry suggested this stuff was quite hot, so I should spread it on sparingly and maybe have my drink at the ready. I opened the jar lid and found what appeared to be cute little Barbie silverware inside. It was the tiniest spoon I had ever seen. If you served soup with an eyedropper instead of a ladle, this was the right size of spoon to consume it. I went the cautious route and dabbed a small amount of mustard on my sandwich. It felt ridiculous to mess with that kind of volume, especially since I love hot-and-spicy stuff. My idea of good pizza, Mexican food or Cajun food is something that makes my eyes water, my nose run and my head bead up like Sugar Ray Leonard’s. How could a couple of drops of mustard do that?
My Billy Barty spoonful hit the spot. That spot was the gaping hole in my chest that opened up as soon as I swallowed the first bite! I give this place my official Guy No. 2 Restaurant Seal of Approval: “Been there. Done that. Dang near died. Going back again.” I plan on being a regular there, as close as a guy from Iowa can get to being a regular at an LA eatery. I also plan to use some more mustard the next time . . . and order three lemonades to quench Barbie’s Sledgehammer Teaspoon of Atomic Mustard.
Once we were done and I had snagged myself a Philippe’s hat and T-shirt (perhaps to mop my brow in the car), our next destination was the Hertz office at LAX to get my convertible.
Thank goodness I was just a passenger on this deal and not behind the wheel. Of course, had I been behind the wheel, I would have patiently and agreeably followed the directions given to me by Little Miss Can’t Be Wrong (aka the friendly lady whose voice is on my GPS system) on my dash. If she tells me to take a left off the end of the pier into what appears to be the Pacific, I turn left and roll up the windows before the tide reaches the backseat. She’s right. Just ask her.
We went a block or two from Philippe’s past a couple of intersections. I think it was the 110 North we were looking for, but I can’t be sure. I wasn’t in full Rain Man mode at the time. This was vacation, dang it! We kept driving. Then we kept driving some more. Then we kept driving some more. I was getting to see a lot more of downtown Los Angeles than I planned. The one thing I didn’t plan on was the U.N. aspect of it. As we kept driving and kept NOT finding our desired exit, we found the country area of Los Angeles. There was Little India, Little Tokyo, Little Armenia and Little Korea. It was like World Showcase at Epcot on a much bigger scale. I was secretly hoping that each Little community had restaurants with the teeny Barbie spoon like we had seen at Philippe’s. That would be too perfect.
We finally called Jerry’s son Nick, and he talked us out of the Little Globe. Even then Jerry still claimed we had been just one or two more intersections away from his intended route the whole time. It’s not that we were lost or anything. Guys don’t get lost. We explore alternate routes. We didn’t settle this land because Columbus got lost. C’mon! He was, like, totally on course with his original plans but just exploring some options. And that all turned out well, didn’t it?
When I got back from my Pebble Beach excursion a few days later, Jerry, his wife Kathy, and I were talking about directions for another stop on my tour. She was skeptical about letting Jerry drive us.
“I have GPS on my car,” he announced quite proudly.
Kathy was beyond skeptical. “WHAT?!?! You do not!”
“Yeah,” he said as he smiled and winked at me. “Gerald’s Positioning System!”
Yep. We’re related. No question.
Guy No. 2