By Bill Gerdes
The French dip sandwich is a relic of the early ’80s, along with smoking in bars, the Cold War, and a healthy manufacturing center. But I love and miss all of those things—maybe not the Cold War—but the French dip most of all. Pity this relatively unimpressive entry in the sandwich world, half bad ’70s baguette, half thinly sliced roast beef. And all served along with a normally over-salted au jus broth.
Still it’s a Southern California original. Both Cole’s and Philippe restaurants in Los Angeles lay claim to the title of inventor of the French dip, where at both locations the bread is pre-dipped, wet and then served. This humble beast was fought over, refined and proudly served on menus throughout our great nation. Today it’s served at Arby’s, and is favored by people who fondly recall BJ and the Bear, and smoke Marlboro reds.
One institution that still offers a French dip worthy of the name is The Hideaway in Riverside. This café is really that—hidden away, that is—underneath the Mission Galleria antique shop. I had always seen the sign but been turned off by all the porcelain and Betty Boop schlock. And then I finally walked down the old wooden stairwell to check it out. The Hideaway is really a small sandwich shop that’s undergone a shotgun marriage with a dive bar; despite the origins behind the nuptials the couple seems to be getting along nicely however. People order sandwiches. People order beer. I ordered the French dip.
It starts with a simple tasty baguette, one that will hold and melt just right when it begins to absorb the au jus. And while we’re on the subject the broth needs to be subtle and spot on, not the liquefied salt lick one gets for an au jus at the average roadside diner. The au jus at The Hideaway is subtle with a hint of sweetness throughout, just another marker that one is eating the type of dip that makes Philippe Mathieu, the owner of Philippe who claimed to invent the sandwich himself, proud. Thinly sliced, quality roast beef doesn’t hurt the sandwich at The Hideaway either.
What makes the thing pretty amazing though is The Hideaway’s judicious use of very dry (almost desiccated) onion rings on its French dip. It gives a sense of whimsy to the sandwich, and it combines perfectly with the bread, au jus, and meat, a case of a little thing meaning more. All sandwiches come with a side; I chose the potato salad, another relic of the end of the Carter years. It’s homemade, slightly spicy and just okay, and served in one of those little paper cups.
Nobody at The Hideaway is trying to look cool, hip or trendy. And while there’s a playful nature to some of the sandwiches there’s no real “showing off” on the menu either. And for a place with Christmas lights strewn around the sides and located in an antique store there’s even a blessed lack of irony. They’ve got a bar. They’ve got Cobb salad sandwich I’m going to try next time. They’ve got hideous paintings up. I ask you—what’s not to like?
The Hideaway, 3700 Main St., Lower Level, Riverside, (951) 686-0950; www.missiongalleriacafe.com. AE, D, MC, V.