American Sandwich Project: French Dips, Drips, and Glops
I have this very strange dream of cooking all the American sandwiches. Why? Because sandwiches are delicious, not horribly complicated, and they’re a great way to learn about the history and geography of the United States. Old and new, East and West, North and South, red states and blue. It’s a project I’ve set out to do several times and then been too broke or busy to follow through with it, but in this time of bubbles and divisiveness it seems like a noble cause. After all, who can hate a sandwich? They’re both yummy and apolitical. Maybe sandwiches are just the thing we need to heal the rifts in our country and bring us together again – at a picnic table, in the sunshine, passing the napkins, talking about the things we all agree on.
Big T is tablespoon, small t is teaspoon, c is cup.
I just found out I have anemia. Don’t worry, it’s not contagious.
This doesn’t really mean anything dire, other than I have to eat more red meat. That’s right, doctors, who normally go around telling people not to eat red meat because they’re big meanies who like to spoil everyone’s fun, are actually telling me to eat more of it.
So it seems to me this is a great time to write about French Dips.
Some of you may recall I am Irish which made me especially qualified to write about corned beef sandwiches, but in addition to being Irish, I’m also French. This duality of spirit means I go around getting into fights and then running away from them, and it also means I’m equally qualified to write about French Dips.
French Dips, like most things that claim to be French, aren’t French at all. And like most things that claim to be sandwiches, their origin story is shrouded in the steam that rises off a bowl of steaming au jus. The French Dip was created sometime between the turn of the 20th Century and WW1 in Los Angeles. While some people out there in myreadershipland think I’m a bumpkin of a hick whose opinions are wacky and uninformed cause I live in a red state (well, actually the red part of a blue state, if you want to get all technical about it), the reality is that I spent a lot of time in LA when I was growing up since my dad lived there. Los Angeles was my home away from home for a good number years, all of which were very informative.
My opinions are wacky for entirely different reasons.
Los Angeles, in many ways, is the quintessential modern American city. We can debate about which city is the American-iest (and this is Ordinary Times, so I’m sure people will) but I don’t even think it’s open for a debate, when it comes to the culture most recognize as Modern American, it emanates from LA, oozing forth not unlike a blanket of noxious smog.
People have lived in the LA area since 3000 BC. You may be surprised to learn that due to lack of beef, most of those people did not eat French Dips at all, although they did still sell maps to the stars’ homes in between hunting, gathering, taking meetings, and doing lunch. This delightful way of life continued until the 1500’s when the Spaniards came to town to build missions and search for gold. The Spanish brought cows with them on their galleons, I assume so they could continue their time-honored tradition of bullfighting to liven up those long nights at sea.
Sadly, despite the sudden presence of beeves, the new inhabitants of the area still didn’t eat many French Dips, probably because no one had invented au jus yet. Instead, they made themselves a city. The Spanish and their bovine companions eventually named the city “El Puebla de Nuestra Senora de los Angeles de los Porciuncula” which was a mouthful, so they shortened it to Los Angeles. Then we all got in such a big hurry we shortened it even more so to LA to give us more time to eat our French Dips and take calls from our agents regarding that pitch we made over at 20th Century Fox about a Dawson’s Creek reboot.
Sometime after the Spaniards’ arrival in the City of Angels – 1908, to be exact – two restaurants opened up in LA. Both of them claim they invented the French Dip, and both of them are still open. Since old things in LA tend to be eradicated, this is pretty freaking amazing. I would have expected younger, sexier restaurants to have taken their place, appearing inexplicably alongside a grizzled 50 year old parking lot who is way past its prime and yet keeps getting callbacks anyway.
One of the potential inventors of the French Dip was a joint called Cole’s Pacific Electric Buffet. Cole’s Pacific Electric Buffet was so named because it was in the Pacific Electric Building, the main terminal for the Pacific Electric Railway, which was this awesome public transportation system of electric trolleys – for a time, the largest public transportation system in the world. In fact, the tables at Cole’s used to be made from the doors of retired trolleys – Red Cars, as they were called. In the name of “progress” some soulless idiot had these iconic tables removed in 2008 and relocated to a developer’s corporate headquarters, totally in keeping with the spirit of Los Angeles.
Most of you probably remember the important role the Pacific Electric Red Cars played in the movie Who Framed Roger Rabbit – a greedy corporation was going to replace the Red Cars with freeways and was going to bulldoze ToonTown to do it, which is pretty much exactly what happened IRL and as a result everyone in LA gets to sit in traffic several hours a day.
Our other contender in the Battle for the French Dip is Phillipe’s, a restaurant founded by an actual Frenchman by the name of Philippe Mathieu, in a part of LA called “Frenchtown”, which was later eradicated by, you guessed it, a freeway. But when that happened, Phillipe’s moved locations without missing even a day of work, which is impressive considering they also used to sell homemade wine back then, until the Health Department got wind of that little scheme. Until 2008 Philippe’s also used to have homemade mustard on the table to be spread on with little spoons, till that pesky Health Department struck again, insisting on plastic squeeze bottles instead.
Ah, LA. So many homeless people they actually had a typhus outbreak, but they’re Johnny-on-the-Spot with mustard-based offenses that no one ever got sick from.
Both Cole’s and Philippe’s, in addition to claiming the French Dip, also claim to be the longest continually running restaurant in LA. So which is it? We want the truth even if we gotta slap it out of someone!!! Stand back, I’m going to slap the Internet until it tells us! It’s Cole’s! (slap) It’s Philippe’s! (slap) It’s Cole’s! (slap) It’s Philippe’s! (furiously shaking Wikipedia) It’s Cole’s AND it’s Phillipe’s!!!
Cole’s was founded first, if only just barely, but it shut down for a couple months for renovations and for someone to ferry away those cool Red Car tables to languish in corporate hell. Philippe’s is slightly younger, but has never closed since it was opened. Let’s just agree they’re both old restaurants and they both say they invented the French Dip.
After reading the backstories, I think I gotta give the official “Probable French Dip Inventer” crown to Phillipe’s. The guy was French, the restaurant was in Frenchtown – for quite some time, Philippe’s was even called “Frenchy’s” by devoted customers – au jus is a French culinary term that means to serve meat with juice (not GRAVY, but JUICE)…I think it’s most likely that Philippe’s was first with the French Dips and Henry Cole, founder of Cole’s Pacific Electric Buffet, had sticky fingers and a selective memory.
But it doesn’t really matter. Stealing the creative energy of others is what LA is all about!
The thing that’s nice about French Dips is that they’re super easy to make at home. My husband loves French Dips so back in the day before Obama got him laid off dooming my family to live in meatless poverty forever more, I used to make them regularly:
The Quick and Easy Yummy French Dip
Because this sandwich is quick and easy, I used to make it on days I had to run errands. I could come home and have a great meal for everyone and have plenty of time to put everything away. I even wrote a little about that phenomenon in my short story, Mom Vs. Couch. But sadly those days are gone. I no longer have money for errands or much else either, and French Dips are now a special occasion food for us. We often have it on Christmas Eve now because it’s delicious and easy freeing up Mom’s precious time for stuffing stockings and praying for a horde of double A batteries to magically appear before Christmas morning. With Christmas on the horizon, I suggest you give it a whirl yourself.
Deli Sliced Roast Beef (back in the day when my older sons still lived at home, for seven of us including 2 teenage boys, it took 2 lbs of meat)
Au Jus (prepared, hot on the stove)
Hoagie Rolls (get more than you think you’ll need, and the ones without sesame seeds are better IMO)
Optional: Swiss Cheese
Optional: Sauteed Onions
Optional: Whatever else. There are people who put all kinds of things on their French Dips like tomatoes and horseradish. I think at some point the sandwich stops being a French Dip and starts being some other thing, which is still a highly excellent sandwich, but isn’t a French Dip any more. The French Dip is simplicity personified. But follow your beefy bliss.
On Roast Beef: Deli-sliced roast beef used to be pretty affordable when it went on sale. It hasn’t gone on sale for a good 5 years now that I’ve seen, so French Dips have become much less a dietary staple and more a Christmas Eve/Superbowl Sunday kind of thing for us. But if you can afford them or you hit a good sale, go for it. Since we moved to the country, I don’t get to the actual deli as often as I used to, and a couple times when I had a craving, I’ve made French Dips with prepackaged roast beef. My conclusion: get to the deli if you can.
On Au Jus: When I was testing this recipe, on a whim, I bought liquid au jus. It was expensive and it was terrible (as au jus, that is. It was good in several recipes, just not on its own as au jus). There was a harshness to it that wasn’t good, and when you’re eating a French Dip you really need to like the au jus since it does a lot of heavy lifting. Up till this recent error in au-judgement, I’ve always used those little foil packets of dry au jus and I strongly recommend those. If this seems inexcusably artificial to you, remember this is a sandwich coming at you straight from Tinseltown. You’re lucky I’m not having you add Botox to it.
Sandwich construction: I just throw the meat on the bread, microwave it for 30 seconds, and serve it with a ladleful of Au Jus for dipping. It takes less meat than you think it should, and that’s a good way to stretch not quite enough roast beef over a few too many people. Yes, you could serve it on a buttered, toasted bun. Yes, you could do all sorts of things. But y tho? It’s totally gilding a lily and it doesn’t make the finished product better, only different.
Sandwich analysis: I have literally never had a complaint about a French Dip and my family complains about a sunny day. I blame their father, even though I spend an awful lot of time bitching about stuff online in thinkpieces. French Dips are the perfect meal for days you’re busy and even though they’re not cheap, they’re by far cheaper than dining out or even getting frozen pizza. Serving French Dips is also a great way to get your kids to eat some meat, if they are like mine and are not super huge fans of the stuff.
Suggested sides: Since this is a California sandwich with a French name, I would do fries, only more pretentious. So like 3 fries with a dab of artisanal ketchup the size of the period at the end of this sentence. For a beverage, I suggest half a carafe of half double decaffinated half-caf with a twist of lemon.
But let’s say you’re a do-it-yourselfer. A purist. And you have money burning a hole in your pocket. You eschew deli beef and want to roast your own. The Pioneer Woman has a great recipe for French Dips using your own roast beef. It looks fantastic. I wouldn’t know, because when I tried this recipe I was not, as she strongly suggested, able to buy a boneless rib loin or a sirloin. And sadly the recipe doesn’t work too good with the 2.99/lb rump roast I was able to afford. I ended up with slices of meat so tough, that to keep going with this LA theme I’m running here, it was like it had endured the indignities of a thousand tanning beds. My rump roast French Dip was the George Hamilton of the meat world.
As is so often the case, the Instant Pot came to my rescue. You can take a cheap wad of cow butt and turn it tender in the Instant Pot. Simply Happy Foodie has a fine recipe, but I usually just dump a packet of dry au jus mix or better yet, two in with some water and the absolute cheapest roast I can find. But it ends up as chunks of meat, and not those glorious thin deli-like slices that the Pioneer Woman claimed to attain. It just isn’t the same. Call it a French Dip if you will, but I consider it a totally different animal, even though it’s actually the exact same animal.
Now, somewhere along the way (I thought it was on The Pioneer Woman site, but I can’t find it on there now)I saw a recipe for something called a French Drip, which I have tinkered with to such extent starting with making it in the Instant Pot, that I’ve pretty much made it my own thing and don’t even feel TOO bad about putting it on here uncredited (if this is your recipe, originally, whoever you are, please let me know so I can give you credit for your delish creation.)
Luckily for me you can’t copyright recipes. The LA spirit of creative theft to the rescue!
The Slightly More Complicated But Significantly Less Good French Drip
Ok, so let’s say you’re having a party and you don’t want to futz around with a lot of stacking meat onto buns nor do your guests want to balance an overly full ramekin of near-boiling au jus on their knee while dodging shrieking toddlers, a drunk Green Bay Packers fan monologuing about the greatness of the late Bart Starr, and the dog who was supposed to stay in the yard but someone let him in.
As big and cheap a roast as you can fit in your Instant Pot
A couple-three packages of dry au jus mix (grab a couple more than you think you’ll need)
Garlic powder and black pepper (they add a little something)
Hoagie Rolls (for some mysterious reason, I liked the sesame seed hoagies for this)
Optional: any additional fixings you think your guests may want.
To cook a roast in your Instant Pot, you’re supposed to brown it first. It’s a nice touch, but I’m not gonna lie, folks, I usually skip this step. If you’re into browning your meat, have at it, but usually I am playing Plants Vs. Zombies when I’m meant to be browning things and only remember I was supposed to brown after I’ve already brought the Pot up to pressure. Dump in 1 or 2 packages of au jus mix, a little pepper and garlic powder, and however much water your IP needs for a roast the size you bought. It ends up being about 2-ish cups usually, but if your roast is small you might use a bit less, if it’s big you’ll need more.
Pressure cook on the Meat setting (or whatever, it seems like every individual IP works just a little different) for 70 minutes, and let it natural release. Natural release will take another 30 minutes – be aware that this is NOT a miraculous time saving IP recipe. I prefer to let meats natural release because otherwise they lose some juice when the pressure is quickly released. If your roast is big, cook it for 80 or even 90 minutes (the 90 minute guideline will mostly apply to people with the largest size IP and not most of us, since we couldn’t even fit that large a roast in our Pots – remember, you mustn’t overload your Pot so read your instruction booklet and choose your roast accordingly) before letting it do a natural release. Yes, overcooking can dry meat out but for this recipe, it’s better to err on the side of tender rather than moist, since people are going to need to be able to bite into the thing and it’s going to be moist all on its own since it’s soaking in salty French beef brine.
On Toasting Hoagies: If you want, you can butter the cut side of the hoagie and toast them on a cookie sheet. I rarely bother because I am lazy, but if I was having a party I might, just to prevent unsightly sog and so my guests would assume I’m a better housekeeper than I am.
Sandwich construction: Take the roast out and let it cool enough to cut into shreds. Hold your au jus on the “keep warm” setting in the Pot while you do this. Sort of half-cut, half-pull-apart the meat (it should be very tender by this point, and if it’s not, you need to cook it longer), taking care not to completely burn the flesh from your bones in the process. If you do, just pick out your fingernails and toss that flesh back into the Pot with the rest of the meat. No one will ever be the wiser. Then in addition to whatever scorched skin you’ve lost, toss the shredded meat back into the au jus in the Pot to keep it warm. If, and only if, the middle of the meat was still tough you may want to pressure cook the tough part it again but at this point I’d probably just roll with what you have. People are WAITING!
To serve, you give your guests a buttered, toasted roll, or a non-buttered toasted roll and an apology if you are me, and then using a slotted spoon (since you want it juicy, but not TOO juicy) you scoop up some of the shredded, au-jus-ed meat onto the bun. It’s kind of a French Dip on the go, no dipping required. It is a little messy still, but in a good way. Drippy. That’s why it’s called a French Drip, because the person I stole this recipe from is clever like that.
Suggested Sides: An Igloo cooler with a bunch of ice in it and whatever pop was on sale that day, and then whatever else your guests bring. Personally I hope they bring Pringles.
Sandwich analysis: It’s good enough, and not as messy as a real French Dip. You can eat it walking around at a get-together. If you’d never eaten a for-real French Dip you might even think it was a great sandwich. But it isn’t a great sandwich, it’s a fairly underwhelming sandwich. It’s a sandwich you take to a pot luck, not a sandwich you would pay anyone to make for you. It’s like going to see a movie you think has Johnny Depp only to find out it was Skeet Ulrich.
But you know, whatever. It’s LA. Everyone is replaceable.
So I like the French Drip and everything, I made it for relatives once and they seemed impressed by it and they aren’t at all polite so it wasn’t that. But it just doesn’t have that authentic French Dip taste to it. For starters, it’s definitely improved by adding things to it, unlike a real French Dip which is IMO ruined by getting too aggressive with the additions. So if you make the Drips, be sure to have extra ingredients available because you’re gonna need them, and also because standing around adding crap onto sandwiches really helps people make small talk at parties and it’s about the only thing left to us that isn’t completely politicized.
Right? I haven’t read the news yet today. Please reassure me horseradish is not cultural appropriation.
Thus I gave up on the French Drip concept and came up with a final variation on the French Dip which I think is better than the Drip, although still not as good as the real deal.
The Perfectly Adequate French Glop
This is the sandwich for the person who wants to thread the needle between affordability and flavor. This is the sandwich for the person who long ago realized they can never attain perfection so they should just be satisfied with good enough. This is the sandwich for the person who reached for the stars and fell flat on their face one too many times. If chronic disappointment was a sandwich, it would be this sandwich.
Truly, it is my sandwich.
As big and cheap a roast as you can fit in your Instant Pot
A couple-three packages of dry Au Jus mix (grab a couple more than you think you’ll need)
Garlic powder and black pepper (they add a little something)
Hoagie Rolls or some sort of similar product
Butter is MANDATORY
Optional: Nothing. Do not add anything to this sandwich at least till you’ve eaten it once.
You will note that these are the same ingredients as the French Drip. The difference is in the sandwich construction; the French Glop is an open-faced sandwich and not a pick-up-and-eat-it type of thing. It doesn’t seem like it, but it makes all the difference. The neatness is the French Drip’s downfall. Yes, you can eat it neatly, but in the process you diminish the goodness of it significantly. The French Glop is not something made to be eaten in front of anyone other than your immediate family. It is comfort food with everything that entails – delicious and messy. It is a sandwich to wallow in and despair over why at age 50 you can’t afford deli beef.
Sandwich construction: You do basically everything you do for the French Drip. But instead of using the slotted spoon and draining the meat, use a ladle and glop the combo of meat and au jus onto your buttered hoagie rolls. Hence the name. I don’t toast the hoagies because for a French Glop, you WANT the unsightly sog. Feel free to add more au jus to your plate to make it even soggier. The roll will turn to mush and every bite feels like you just dipped an actual French Dip into a bowl of the good stuff. Now, the weird thing about this sandwich is that in the other incarnations of the French whatever, the butter was optional. But you must use butter on this. Butter is not optional here. I don’t know why, but the butter is beyond mandatory – it’s the most important part of the whole thing. Years later you’ll walk away from this sandwich and you’ll forget everything else about it but the butter will remain in your mind forevermore.
Sometimes the Last Tango in Paris jokes almost write themselves don’t they?
Sandwich analysis: This is one of those sandwiches you indulge in at home alone and never discuss in polite company, not unlike watching Last Tango in Paris. It’s great, leagues beyond a French Drip, but it’s embarrassingly messy, not unlike Last Tango in Paris. It leaves you with a not-so-vague sense of dissatisfaction with your life, not unlike Last Tango in Paris.
You have to eat it with a fork, preferably while wearing yoga pants and a bib and no bra. (please admire my forebearance in not turning that sentence into a Last Tango in Paris joke.) There is nothing remotely LA about the French Glop; it’s more middle America than coastal America. But it tastes a lot more like a real life French Dip than the French Drip does. It’s drippy. It’s gooey. It’s juicy. Why, it’s positively Au Juicy. It doesn’t need any cheese or onion or mustard or horseradish to help it out, it’s good all on its own, just bread, meat, au jus, and butter.
Suggested Sides: It’s a pretty filling sandwich so you don’t need much. I’m assuming if you’re eating the French Glop you can’t afford alcohol, so I suggest Kool-Aid made with extra sugar and the stale broken chips left at the bottom of the bag that seemed like too much food to throw away but no one wanted to eat them so you’ve left them on top of the fridge for a month or two.
And don’t forget that extra iron pill.
Photo by aresauburn™