Saucy adventure

A happy accident nearly a century ago has inspired a sensational sandwich.

It's not often that serendipity has changed the course of history. There was the dropping apple that inspired Newton's theory of gravity, the accidentally mouldy dish that led Fleming to discover penicillin, and the happy accident that led to the 1918 creation of the French Dipped Sandwich in aLos Angeles diner.

"Philippe Mathieu was making a roast-beef sandwich for a policeman and accidentally dropped the roll into a roasting pan," explains Mark Massengill, owner of Philippe the Original, on the edge of Chinatown. "The officer said, 'I'll try it like that, it looks good'. He loved it. Now, we make 3000 a day."

I don't know which is more unlikely, the sandwich's origin story or the survival of this old-school diner. Sitting on a wooden stool at a long table, sawdust beneath my feet, I can see queues of diners in front of "carvers" who assemble orders while they wait.

The quirky interior is decorated with aneon wall clock, a mounted marlin and wooden phone boxes into whose handsets Iyearn to shout, "Hold the front page!".

The methodology of the French Dipped Sandwich ($7.35) has been refined over the past century. Massengill says they now create a jus from roasting pan drippings and beef stock over two days, which is then applied to the inside of the bread roll.

I order one of these culinary miracles, with pickles, chilli, potato salad and strangely purple boiled egg on the side. The sandwich is delicious, the jus imparting a rich, full flavour to the generous serve of beef within.

Two kilometres to the south, however, in the heart of Los Angeles' Downtown, is a rival claimant to the crown. Remarkably, Cole's bar and restaurant was also in existence in 1908 and claims to have invented the French Dipped Sandwich when a customer who'd had dental work wanted the bread softened by being dipped in gravy.

I'm expecting another old-style diner, but what I find is a spectacular vintage bar with along, pitted counter; a crimson pressed-tin ceiling and antique light fittings. I feel as if I've wandered into an Edwardian-era London pub, but we're definitely in LA – the lively bartender, Leandro, tells me he also makes short films and writes screenplays.

With Cole's version of the sandwich ($7.70), the jus arrives in a small bowl into which the sandwich is progressively dipped.

To be frank, it's not as good as Philippe's – the jus is thin, and makes the bread soggy. However, what I've stumbled across is an excellent cocktail bar. I ask Leandro to make me something with a local twist, and he fashions a Saladito ($15) from mezcal, honey syrup, lime juice and ice, served with a dusting of cayenne pepper.

It's the perfect end to my quest, the smoky background taste of the mezcal blending perfectly with the lime juice, and the pepper making my lips tingle. Just the thing to follow those sandwiches on a warm LA afternoon. Let's call it dessert.

Tim Richards travelled courtesy of Fiji Airways and the Los Angeles Tourism & Con-vention Board.

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