The following is a guest post co-written by Greg Gonzalez and Daniel Zafran, the co-hosts of LA Meekly, a monthly podcast dedicated to the unique history of the city of Los Angeles.
Many people say L.A. hasn’t contributed enough to American culture other than West Coast Jazz, skateboarding, beach music and the entire film industry. They make a fair point, but we’re here to humbly offer up 8 dishes invented in our city.
Long before the current culinary renaissance we are now living in, this city was pushing the limits of what could, and in some cases should, be passed off as food.
But don’t take our word for it.
Have a read below!
1. The French Dip Sandwich
Despite what old man Cole’s will tell you, the French dip sandwich was created in 1918 at Philippe’s just on the edge of Chinatown. Philippe’s had been around since 1908 but even 10 years in, mistakes still happen, as the legend goes, when a police officer came in for a roast beef sandwich and the decidedly French Philippe Mathieu, apparently intimidated by the concept of a hungry cop, dropped the sandwich in a pan full of meat juice still hot from the oven. The cop loved it so much, he let Philippe out of the choke hold and came back later with friends all eager to try his new creation. And thus, a sandwich named after a completely different place was born in L.A.
Additional background via Phillippe’s
2. The Oyster Cocktail
Not much food existed before the year 1900 but what did sounded pretty gross. In July 1894, Al Levy began selling what he called “California Oyster Cocktails” out of his push cart at 1st and Main downtown. It combined the city’s two loves of drinking cocktails with crustaceans in them and eating seafood off of a push cart. The drink was a hit not just with the local street urchins (no relation to the contents of the drink) but also with the high class opera crowds. It was so successful that in 1896 he was able to open up an actual restaurant at 3rd and Main that solidified the drink as a must try food while in L.A. This was a classic rags to riches story for Mr. Levy proving, once again, that the world is your oyster cocktail.
Additional background via LA Times
3. The Hot Fudge Sundae
Lookin’ for some hot fudge, baby? So was Clarence Clifton Brown when he became the first person to pour some on an ice cream sundae at C.C. Brown’s on 7th and Flower downtown; creating the world’s first hot fudge sundae. The place had been open since 1906 but the success of his signature fudge allowed him to move in 1929 to a better location right by the Chinese Theater at 7007 Hollywood Boulevard solidifying themselves as a tourist and celebrity hotspot and cementing the hot fudge sundae as an American classic. The place closed in 1996 but a sign on the lamppost out front marks the spot and tastes almost as good.
4. The Chili Burger
Sometimes to invent a new dish, all you have to do is add buns which is exactly what “Ptomaine” Tommy Deforest did at The Original Ptomaine Tommy’s at 2420 N. Broadway in Lincoln Heights. The 24-hour chili parlor had been slopping chili down people’s gullets since 1913 but it wasn’t until he took his popular “chili size” (a hamburger patty drowned in chili) and served it with buns that the chili burger was born. Always the jokester, Tommy Deforest’s nickname “Ptomaine” is actually the scientific name for food poisoning. Finally explaining the age old saying “Chili today, ptomaine tomorrow.”
Additional background via examiner.com
5. The Cheeseburger
It’s hard to imagine a time when grilled cheese sandwiches and hamburgers weren’t interbreeding but before the Rite Spot opened up in the early 20s at 1500 W. Colorado Boulevard in Pasadena you better believe they were sleeping in separate buns. The cheeseburger was created by the owner of this establishment: Lionel Sternberger. A man who took his namesake very seriously. Rumor has it that the Aristocratic Burger, as he called it, was created by accident when he burnt one side of a hamburger patty and decided to cover up his mistake with a pile of cheese rather than apologies. Sternberger’s second big impact on the city was when he decided to loan a Mr. Bob Wain some money to start a burger stand of his own: Bob’s Big Boy.
Additional background via LA Times
6. The Orange Julius
When life gives you orange groves, make Orange Julius. Just take it from Julius Freed who decided in 1926 to open up a mobile orange juice stand. Things really took off when a friend of his desperately wanted a sip of the juice but couldn’t stomach it due to his severe acid reflux. To compensate, he blended the juice with milk, sugar, vanilla extract, egg and ice; making the focus less on the tummy and more on the yummy. Julius started selling this concoction at his cart and the people loved it so much they’d come up and say “Give me an orange, Julius!” and the you-know-what was born.
7. The Cobb Salad
Have you ever met a salad so famous you asked for its autograph? Then you may have cartoon oasis disorder. Seek help. But if you’re looking for the salad of the stars, look no further than the old Brown Derby at 1628 Vine in the heart of Hollywood. But don’t go looking because it’s not there anymore. This was the second Brown Derby location and became a celebrity hotspot due to its proximity to the local studios but it really left its mark in either 1929 or 37, depending on which story you want to believe, when the guy who ran the place, Robert H. Cobb, was hanging out in the dining area with some Hollywood big shots and was sent into the kitchen to rustle something up for his glitterati guests. He grabbed everything he could find in the kitchen (iceburg lettuce, watercress, romaine, chicory, tomato, roasted chicken, bacon, avocado, hardboiled egg, chives, Roquefort cheese and French dressing), threw it in a bowl and the Cobb Salad was born. The celebrities loved it so much they would request it every time they came in and next thing they knew, it had its own star on the walk of fame with a star of French dressing on the side.
Additional background via Wall Street Journal
8. The Chinese Chicken Salad
A lot of people credit this one to Wolfgang Puck but puck that. It was actually created by Madame Sylvia Wu at her restaurant, Wu’s Garden, at 2628 Wilshire Boulevard in Santa Monica in the 1960s. Local celebrities loved the place as it was one of the few joints in town to offer quality Chinese food at the time. It’s even credited with introducing L.A. to one of its greatest romances of all time: tofu. The salad came about when Cary Grant came in one day describing to Madame Wu a salad he had eaten one time and, ever the charmer, demanded she recreate it. What she came up with was the modern Chinese chicken salad complete with citrus and that signature crunch, heralding in yet another locally created dish named after a completely different place.
Additional background via KCET
Final Food For Thought
Even if no other types of food came to town, we would still have a complete homegrown meal out of these 8 dishes. We wouldn’t live long on such a diet but luckily we don’t have to because of the rich diversity of cuisine we have to choose from but let these 8 menu items stand as our local contribution to the world-wide menu.
For more background on the food origin stories mentioned above be sure to check out the LA Meekly podcast episode entitled City Bites: Original Los Angeles Dishes. And if you have a comment on the list be sure to harass Daniel and Greg on Twitter @LAMeekly.