French Dips Have Never Looked Better

This meaty sandwich is getting an upgrade in restaurants all over the country

Braised oxtail, caramelized onions, mushrooms and red onion gastrique. This isn't some fancy French dish served in a dining room with white tablecloths; it's the French dip from Stacked, Portland's next big sandwich shop. And it's kicking this American classic (yes, the French dip is American) into high gear.

The sandwich comes from the deft hands of Gabriel Pascuzzi of pop-up Pn26, where he serves dishes like Thai chile peach sorbet with hamachi, nori, peach skin and a sous-vide tapioca cracker. You can only imagine what the food's going to be like at his new sandwich shop, opening this December.

In a somewhat ironic turn of events, Pascuzzi, who returned to his hometown to lead the kitchen at Portland's Multnomah Whiskey Library after staging at Noma and working at NYC's Colicchio & Sons and DB Bistro, is elevating this American sandwich with a deceptively French name by applying some very traditional French techniques.

"There are just techniques that you only learn in fine dining: the braising, the smoking, the curing. And being able to then cook that level [of technique] into a sandwich—it's only making it that much better," the chef says of his braised oxtail French dip sandwich (see the recipe), not traditionally known to require a culinary degree to master.

Though the origin has been disputed for years between two L.A. restaurants, Cole's and Philippe, this spring the score seems to have settled in favor of Philippe (for now at least . . .), where the sandwich was actually just a well-received accident.

The year was 1918, and as co-owner Andrew Binder tells it, "Philippe Mathieu was making a sandwich, and the roll fell into the pan drippings of some beef. A customer (supposedly a police officer) was in a rush and said he would take it that way. After bringing it to the precinct and enjoying it, he came back with some friends and requested that Mathieu dip the sandwiches."

The original versions were made of beef, pork or lamb, but now the restaurant also offers pastrami, turkey and ham. Customers can order their sandwiches single-dipped, where just the top piece of bread is soaked; double-dipped, with both pieces soaked; or wet: fully dunked.

"Part cheap eat, part culinary invention, the French dip is part backbone of [the] urban dining since its early days," says a representative from Maison Pickle, a soon-to-open NYC restaurant that's making the sandwich a centerpiece of the menu. Amazingly satisfying? Yes. Refined? Not quite.

"Historically, it's kind of a bad sandwich," says Josh Lewin, executive chef of Boston's Juliet, which opened this year to great fanfare. "It was designed as a vehicle for bad ingredients. Overcooked roast beef and grocery-store, horrible French bread."

Of course, there's a time and place for these unsavory but nostalgic foods—a point Lewin, who serves his own version of the French dip at Juliet, is cashing in on. After prime rib night on Thursday, Lewin reserves extra meat and slices it thin for his sandwiches. Then he purées a bunch of caramelized onions and makes a fresh horseradish spread with turmeric; the latter lends a bright color and savoriness to the zingy sauce. The dip comes from roast beef drippings and a bone stock, and the whole sandwich is topped with fresh parsley, flaky sea salt and pickled pearl onions.

In New York this summer, Dominique Ansel and Deuki Hong created a Korean French dip with prime rib, kimchi marmalade, garlic butter and two dipping sauces to choose from: kalbi short rib jus or shiitake mushroom jus. Next up? Maison Pickle, opening this fall on the Upper West Side.

"It's an iconic dish—the combination of good meat, fresh bread and pan-scraped jus—it's one of my favorites: a big, meaty sandwich that just brings a smile to my face," Jacob Hadjigeorgis of Maison Pickle says.

Why the sandwich is getting the royal treatment all over the country this year is anyone's guess, but it's happening just in time for comfort food season, which is a good enough reason for us. As Lewin says, "There's no reason to keep doing things the same way if we can make them a little bit better."