For most of my life, I’ve lived within earshot of train tracks, a scenario that has continued at my current home in Leucadia where the Coaster, Amtrak Pacific Surfliner and BSN&F freight trains roll by regularly. At times, it sounds as if they are roaring through my bungalow when the winds are blowing offshore.
And yes, some of the train engineers maybe a little aggressive in their honking — I’ve noticed there seems to be a serious anti-train honking movement on Nextdoor. I made the mistake of chiming in with something to the effect of “That’s a high-class coastal problem, folks,” and boy, did I feel the wrath.
I’m also a huge fan of riding the trains as a mode of transportation whenever possible. Locally, I’ve taken the Coaster down to a Padres game or to enjoy a restaurant or museum downtown. I also had the opportunity recently to take the Amtrak to Los Angeles for a solar rally and thought that would be the perfect opportunity to include a culinary exploration in my trip.
Taking the train to LA is a completely different experience and a fabulous one at that. Just snag a west-facing seat and you are in for a visual treat. I always hop on in Solana Beach as I like to feast my eyes on the coastal delights as it rolls along the North County coastline before veering inland. The seats are comfy and there is always a nice mix of humanity represented.
Prior to this recent trip, I reached out to a handful of friends to get the scoop on what the culinary options are surrounding Los Angeles Union Station as the rally was a short walk from there. They were abundant, to say the least, but one grabbed my attention immediately: “Philippe the Original” or “Philippe’s French Dip Sandwich,” depending on the source. I’m just going with “Philippe’s.”
Besides being a huge fan of beef and bread dipped in au jus as they do with Chicago-style Italian Beef, it was the history of the place that drew me in.
Philippe’s was established in 1908 by Philippe Mathieu, who claimed the distinction of having created the “French Dipped Sandwich.”
As the story goes, while making a sandwich Mathieu dropped the sliced French roll into the roasting pan filled with juice still hot from the oven. The customer said he would take the sandwich anyway and returned the next day with some friends asking for more dipped sandwiches.
And so was born the “French Dipped Sandwich,” named either because of Mathieu’s French heritage or that the French roll the sandwich is made on, the story varies. It became the specialty of the house and is offered with either roast beef, roast pork, leg of lamb, turkey or ham served on a freshly baked French roll which has been dipped in the natural gravy of the roasts (au jus) either once or twice.
My advice is to keep it simple and go with just roast beef, a single dip of the top bun, with some of their hot French mustard to give it just a little kick and a side of au jus for additional dipping. It’s become a lust-worthy, top five sandwich in my highly competitive favorite sandwich category.
The sides are also as good as I’ve had…I’m speaking specifically of the potato salad, macaroni salad and coleslaw. I went with potato salad, slaw, pickles and a Mexican Coke. Hard-boiled eggs pickled in beet juice and spices, large Kosher style, sour dill or sweet pickles, black olives and hot yellow chili peppers are also noteworthy. And randomly, Philippe’s still serves close to 300 pounds of pig’s feet every week.
Service is quick and efficient and definitely part of the experience. There is a long display counter with 10 carvers. You get into one of the 10 lines, and when you reach your carver, they can take care of your whole meal; make your sandwich or fix your hot dish, serve salads or soup, give you a soda, beer or a glass of wine, add it all up and take your money. And despite my rookie status, my carver was friendly and helpful.
The place was full of an eclectic mix of patrons with community-style seating and the sense that every single person in the joint was grateful to be there. I usually keep lunch on the light side, but that rule was out the window on that glorious day in downtown LA and I had a relaxing train ride to look forward to back to Encinitas, not the stress of rush hour traffic.
And while I loved this place enough to make it the focus of a return trip by train, there is a plethora of both dining and cultural attractions within walking distance of Union Station. Chinatown, fabulous museums, and some walkable neighborhoods with plenty of history abound.
My advice would be to make a day of it and take a morning train that gets you into LA around noon, enjoy Chinatown for lunch where Yang Chow and their Slippery Shrimp dish have been suggested. Walk your meal off throughout the afternoon then indulge in an early dinner at Philippe’s and catch a sunset train home.
However you plan it, the train is a stress-free way to do LA while enjoying some amazing food and culture while you are at it.
Philippe’s is at 1001 N. Alameda Street, Los Angeles. For more info, visit www.philippes.com.