The origins of the all-American French dip

Double dipped beef sandwich with potato salad, a kosher pickle and iced tea. | Photo by Billy Yang.

American menus can be misleading. Take French fries and the French dip sandwich for examples. Neither one is French in origin. Fries can be traced back to Belgium and the French dip isn’t from a francophone country at all.

“In France, we don’t have a French dip sandwich. We don’t eat sandwiches like that,” said Jean Jacques Grossi, who emigrated from France 36 years ago and is the executive chef at Gourmandise. “I’m not sure where it comes from. I would have to Google it.”

The French dip sandwich was actually created in Los Angeles. It’s an all-American advent.

While the exact restaurant that invented the sandwich is still disputed — whether it was Cole’s Pacific Electric Buffet or Philippe the Original — one of the more popular stories of involves Philippe.

The tale takes place in 1918. An officer ordered a beef sandwich and Philippe “Frenchy” Mathieu, the original owner of the downtown deli, accidentally dropped the bread in a roasting pan that still contained the drippings. The officer was in a hurry, so he took the sandwich anyway.

This officer enjoyed his lunch so much that he returned the next day and brought others with him who all wanted to try the sauce-soaked sandwich. This happy accident eventually became known as the French dip — so named because the sandwich is served on a French roll and because of Mathieu’s nickname and heritage.

“I spoke with the grandson of Philippe Mathieu at the restaurant’s 100th anniversary and he confirmed the story. That’s exactly what he heard from his grandfather,” said Mark Massengill.

Massengill is a managing partner at Philippe the Original. His family has owned and operated the restaurant since 1927 when they purchased it from Mathieu.

Philippe the Original is located at 1001 N. Alameda St. in downtown L.A. | Photo by Billy Yang.

First opened in 1908, Philippe the Original is considered a historic site in L.A. The restaurant had to relocate in 1951 to make way for the 101 Freeway. Other than that, not much has changed, especially not the menu.

“The menu has been basically the same and that’s something we’ve been very careful to maintain,” Massengill said. “People come here because they’re familiar with it. They come here because their parents brought them and they know exactly what they’re going to get.”

The French dip is served with the au jus (the savory broth mixture) applied directly to the bread rather than on the side. That’s how the sandwich was originally conceived and the owners are not ones to break with tradition.

“The history is a big part of it. It’s what brings people back,” Massengill said.

Philippe the Original attracts its fair share of tourists but a major part of its clientele are locals who have been dining there since childhood.

The queue at Philippe the Original. | Photo by Billy Yang.

“I’ve been coming here for 20 years. My dad started bringing me here when I was a kid,” said Joel Jones, a downtown L.A. attorney.

The Copper Onion in Salt Lake City has a version of the French dip on its lunch menu. Owner and chef, Ryan Lowder, remembers his first run in with the humble sandwich being in his own home.

“My mom used to make it. She was a pretty ambitious cook,” Lowder said. “First she was using deli slices but then she started braising the meat herself. It was definitely a homegrown French dip. That was my first experience with it.”

The French dip at Copper Onion is fairly straightforward but what sets it apart are the quality ingredients and care that goes into the preparation.

“You don’t need to gussy up a French dip. We don’t do anything out of the ordinary but it does take some TLC,” Lowder said.

The au jus, which takes 10 hours to prepare, is served on the side. The sandwich itself consists of beef sourced from Pleasant Creek Ranch, caramelized onions and Tillamook cheddar all piled in a house-made baguette — a very important part of the equation.

“The bread, I mean, that’s your delivery,” Lowder said. “I think dipping it is fun. You just use the sandwich like a shovel and get all that au jus.”

The Copper Onion serves the American-made sandwich with a side of French fries — or Belgian frites. Well, let’s just call them fries.

*This is the unabridged version of a story first published in The Salt Lake Tribune.