Sunday, January 4, 2009

Philippe's vs. Cole's: The LA French Dip Throwdown

Any food lover who lives in LA knows that there is a long-standing rivalry revolving around which of two esteemed downtown establishments served the world's first French Dip sandwich. Philippe the Original and Cole's Pacific Electric Buffet both lie just off Main Street, about a mile and quarter apart from each other, in LA's downtown corridor. Both restaurants were founded in 1908, though Philippe's has since changed location, and both serve beef, pork and lamb sandwiches dipped in jus. Despite those similarities though, these are very different restaurants and that is even more the case since downtown entrepreneur Cedd Moses refurbished Cole's. Given the recent reopening of Cole's, I thought it was time for a Dip-off between LA's two jus-soaked giants of the French Dip.

Flipping for Philippe: Philippe the Original

From the look of it, Philippe the Original hasn't changed much in the last fifty or so years, and certainly not in the ten years I've been going there. The floor is strewn with sawdust, the staff may have been working there since it opened and the place is filled with anachronisms like the old-time candy counter, the row of phone booths and ten cent coffee (no refills).

Anyone who isn't familiar with it may be surprised to find that Philippe's Dip isn't what most people think of as a French Dip sandwich. That is, it isn't served with a little bowl of jus. Instead, the server dips the bread in jus for you (or double dips it if you request it, which you should) while she is making the sandwich. In my mind, this raises some suspicion as to whether you can call Philippe's the first Dip. It certainly isn't the Dip that caught on elsewhere.

I've been to Philippe's enough to know what my order is: the lamb sandwich, double dipped with blue cheese, smothered with the atomic, sinus clearing mustard, a side of slaw and a pickled egg. The lamb is gamy, the blue cheese is pungent and strong and the mustard packs a wallop. The slaw is nothing special but it cuts the heat of the mustard and the eggs are a beautiful shade of purple. There are few sandwiches more satisfying, and you can wash it down with a pick from one of the last affordable wine-by-the-glass lists in the city. It's one of the city's great sandwiches.

A Merry Old Soul: Cole's PE Buffet

Where I'm a Philippe regular, I must admit that I had never made it to Cole's before this challenge. It took the refurbishment to motivate me to finally make good on my pledges to check it out. Having never seen the earlier version, I can't comment on the changes, but it's a nice looking place with a good old-time groove. The wood paneling and old photos make me feel like I'm at "the tables down at Mory's" or some other mythic old robber-baron haunt.

Despite it's name, Cole's is not a buffet and, in fact, has a very limited menu, though they have the same major offerings as Philippe's. I took a beef dip and the Cole's version of my Philippe favorite, the lamb with blue cheese.

The beef was fine but unexciting, but I'm not a fan of the beef dip at Philippe's either, so I honed like a laser on the lamb. The lamb was well cooked, not as gamy as Philippe's but more refined...different but equally good. The blue cheese was weak in flavor and couldn't contend with the lamb; they need to use something stronger. The atomic mustard was there and seemed pretty comparable in its sinus clearing capacity. Unlike Philippe's, Cole's gives you the traditional bowl of jus to dip in. While the jus was rich and tasty, there needs to be enough jus for a whole sandwich, and mine ran out after half. You can order extra jus, but I don't feel I should have to pay extra just to have sufficient jus for the whole sandwich.

As for sides, while the menu is limited, the creamed spinach was my favorite. The cream and some Parmesan cheese gives it a rich and tangy taste, and the spinach retains its character and texture in a way that is lacking in so many creamed spinach dishes where the spinach is reduced to a totally molten state.


Overall, I'd say the title of the best Dip has to go to Philippe's. The sandwiches there came together in a way that Cole's did not. The counterpoint of the gamy lamb and the strong blue cheese is a flavor explosion. The double dipping ensured that the entire sandwich was saturated in jus and the sinus clearing mustard adds the final's a roller coaster of flavor.

Cole's had nice lamb and nice jus, but the sandwich just didn't come together in the same way. The bread was bit too thick, the cheese too subtle, the jus too sparing. Of course, Cole's only recently reopened and there should be room for some tinkering, but as of now, I'll stick to Philippe's.

It should be noted that there are other French Dips in this town. For a rich, beefy beef dip with plenty of deep, thick jus, I'll take Taylor's Steakhouse in Koreatown over either Cole's or Philippe's, but when you're talking Dips in LA, there are two giants and all the rest will always be...all the rest.

Philippe the Original
1001 N Alameda St.
Los Angeles, CA 90012
(213) 628-3781

Cole's PE Buffet
118 E 6th St.
Los Angeles, CA 90014
(213) 622-4090


Anonymous said...

Unfortunately, since Cole's reopened -- someone along the line has lost the recipe. The dips are NOTHING like they used to be -- and they used to be nothing short of FANTASTIC. The bread, the meat, the memories -- everything comes from a new supplier now. Cole's used to serve up a selection of nostalgic hot dishes daily as well. Corned Beef and Cabbage that rivaled the great Magee's at Farmers Market, and a beef vegetable soup that tasted just like you'd be served homemade in the midwest during winter. At Cole's, the menu used to be anything but limited -- you could eat there every day of the week and not have the same fare twice. Now they're trying to appeal to the yuppie crowd. They've copied Philippe's menu of dips, when their own was the real McCoy. Whatever happened to the pastrami and the corned beef dips? I'll grant them that they've come up with a fantastic pecan pie, however, but they've sacrificed the signature dishes for something else. What a shame. Unless someone invents a time machine and you can go back and visit Cole's before its refurbishment -- you'll never know what an absolutely AWESOME french dip could be.

sku said...

Ah, you're killing me, Anonymous. I had feared as much when I didn't see the famous pastrami dip on the menu. Now, I will forever wonder what I missed at the old Cole's.

Anonymous said...

Thank you very much for that article. I know where I'm going to luch today!

Anonymous said...

I like Philippe's free parking, that's really rare in LA. Check out this guy's youtube review of the two places.

Anonymous said...

Free parking? Are you kidding me? We're talking about the food, man. Justifying your love of a restaurant because of the parking is like saying you love your girlfriend because of her shampoo.