Downtown LA eateries Philippe’s and Cole’s both lay claim to making the first French dip sandwich. Whomever you choose to believe, it is undisputed that it started in Los Angeles in the 19-teens. Many a sandwich shop has come up with their own version of the French dip, but Harlowe’s French Dip on a little back street in Old Pasadena, has made that distinction its focal point.
It’s curious why they put these sandwiches at the forefront when they serve much more than French dips. From a distance, Harlowe’s is a gastropub, or, as they call themselves, a saloon with sandwiches. Still the French dip theme works because not only are theirs delicious, they go well with beer, and the old time decor is a nice historical fit with the 1930s era building and the surrounding neighborhood.
All these years I thought French dips were so named because they were a French culinary trick (Why else, I thought, would the name Philippe be attached to it?). The French part refers to the French roll it’s on and the dip is, naturally, the au jus. The rolls at Harlowe’s are the perfect sweetness and texture with just the right amount of tooth and a crumb that holds the crispy, buttery toasting they give them. All the meats — beef, pork, lamb and turkey — are tender and flavorful and come with a 4.5 ounce carving for $8 to $10 (6 ounce carves are a couple bucks more). The jus is unique to each meat since it comes right from the pan drippings. A creamy horseradish sauce usually comes alongside as well.
Any French dip place worth their salt has a house mustard. Theirs is made with an overnight marinade of La Fin du Monde Belgian Tripel, a Canadian brew. La Fin du Mustard, as they call it, shows up next to the slow roasted pork French dip and perks up the outstanding deviled eggs with a smoky, tangy flavor all their own.
The pickles are really good too. They do a 30-day in-house brine for a pickle that’s almost as gratifying as the meat. I thought I was a dill girl, but after tasting my friend’s, next time I’ll get the gorgeous bread and butters.
And that’s all there is to a French dip — meat, bread, dip and pickle. Its simplicity is what makes it so irresistible. In a world of bowls filled with varying textures, this is the soft, easy to eat antidote.
They make their own sauces from scratch at Harlowe’s as well. There’s a spicy barbecue for the impossibly thin and light onion strands (they’re too irregularly shaped to be called rings) and a garlicky buttermilk aioli for the fried chicken drumsticks with their hot, juicy dark meat interior and crispy coating. The chicken is on their “Bar Bites” menu, a great place to start your meal at Harlowe’s. You might want to try the earthy Texas Toast with its buttery bone marrow and Parmesan-parsley top. It goes very well with the icy cold, exhilarating Pacific oysters. The homemade mignonette, lemon slice and spicy seafood sauce alongside work separately or together.
At Happy Hour (every day from 2 to 6 p.m. and all day on Sunday), most of the items mentioned above and a few more are $2 off. Fried chicken drumsticks are now only $4, deviled eggs are $2, and a pint of Craftsman saison is only $5. All craft beers on tap are $2 off, as are wines by the glass. They have eight rotating taps with a well-curated selection heavy on local breweries like Craftsman, Eagle Rock and San Diego’s Modern Times.
Beer is at the heart of Harlowe’s. It seems everything on the menu is meant to go well with beer. Besides the French dips, there are unique sandwiches and a killer burger made of a “proprietary blend of chuck, short rib and brisket.” The sides are a cut above the rest as well. I loved the blue cheese slaw. My girlfriend was into the salt brine Kennebec fries with house made ketchup. There are a few salads but they seem like afterthoughts in case you brought your vegetarian friend.
No, this is a meat-n-bun lover’s place, definitely not for someone on a low carb-diet. In one sitting I had breaded chicken, bread, meat on bread, bread pudding and liquid bread (beer). Don’t get me wrong — it was delicious, especially that warm bread pudding with its amazing burnt caramel sauce, chunks of candied pecans and vanilla ice cream. I hear the little donuts are fabulous as well. Melt-in-your-mouth beignet type orbs are stacked up and smothered in a similar nutty, sticky sauce.
Harlowe’s was started by four friends who grew up in Pasadena – two firefighters and two chefs. They picked a beautiful building on a prime street to create their vision. The space itself has this strange ability to be both welcoming and not welcoming. The wait staff, especially Dave, is friendly and helpful. But when you first poke your nose in the door, you’re not sure if the place is open. Nary a napkin or utensil graces the Spartan tables — an homage to the plain wooden tables at Philippe’s and Cole’s, I presume. Also, the music tends to be gloomy post-punk or alternative rock. That’s probably fine at 9 or 10 p.m., but it doesn’t really fit the space at six.
Once you’re seated and looking out the big picture windows, they really make you feel at home. And thankfully, they’re not beer snobs at all. I went a couple of times with different girlfriends, and they patiently helped all of us choose the beer that was right for us.
A note on parking: While the public lot is conveniently across the street, Harlowe’s does not validate.
So while you can’t get a 10-cent cup of Yuban like at Philippe’s or visit a hidden speakeasy like at Cole’s, you can get a great French dip sandwich and a cold beer right here in Pasadena. And if you branch out on the menu, you can get a whole lot more.
Harlowe’s French Dip
43 East Union St., Pasadena | (626) 535-0985 | harlowesfrenchdip.com
Beer & Wine/Major Cards