The oldest public house in L.A. (since 1908), Cole's resides along the foot of the Pacific Electric Building (which is Los Angeles Historic-Cultural Monument #104), and therefore the "P.E." (in "Cole's P.E. Buffet") stands for Pacific Electric, justsoyouknow. It had a brief span of remodeling and reopening in 2008, but would otherwise be the oldest continuously-operating eatery in this town.
This is the place most often brought up in context with Philippe the Original, since both claim to have originated the French-dipped sandwich. Cole's seems to want to make a point of this, while Phillipe ignores everything south of it.
Cole's has a different vibe. As opposed to the paper plates and aged trays of Philippe's workaday lunch counter, Cole's is more restaurant/saloon oriented; you can get a can of Schlitz or a dram of Auchentoshan 10-year single malt. It's draped in deep colors: scarlet ceiling tiles, velvet bordelloesque wallpaper, mahogany panels and burgundy booths.
Here's why you're here. The Big Dipper is not a large sandwich. The French loaf is nicely textural but nondescript. The Swiss cheese is low-key. This beast is practiced in subtlety, not power.
The meat--beef in this photo, but you can get lamb, turkey, pork or pastrami--is exactly what it needs to be, lean, puffy and thick, soothed into a mild temperament when dipped into the small dish of au jus (another difference from Philippe, where expert assemblers dip or double-dip it before serving). It is a plain darned good roast meat sandwich, a crisply attired noble of sandwichdom.
Cheddar, goat or blue cheese is available, and I'm told I need to get the lamb with goat cheese. I shan't say no to an expert.
That's pretty much your lot for the main course, except for a couple of alternates. The Grilled Cheese is on big, shiny sourdough, toasted enough to make your fingertips moist. Small stiffened spikes of yellow and white cheese protrude like armor. This also benefits from stolen dips into the au jus.
Bianca: It's like dipping magic, isn't it?
Dave: Yes, it is. Stay away from my juice.
Potato salad, I see. Whatever. But look. It's Bacon Potato Salad. And it's probably the finest potato salad on the planet. In Near-Earth Orbit, even. The obligatory potato salad at all those family gatherings would be a lot less miserable if bacon was added.
There is seasoning in every bite, it's not overdone with celery, and there is just enough mayonnaise to glue it together and give it a sheen. It tastes like they add a touch of pickle juice for that old-school zing. It is my favorite potato salad, ever.
There are other sides too, such as Spicy Garlic Fries, crunchy gold with a seasoned salt bite. They seem innocuous, but wait for the quick kick of spice before you cough.
A bottle of house mustard is near the wall, so grab it and use it sparingly. Like the devilish condiment at Philippe, it has that electric rampage-up-your-face jolt if you apply too much.
We're not done. Cole's has a real bar, and they're not afraid to use it. They make a good Cosmopolitan (their Cosmo is made with gin, rather like martinis are supposed to be*), and a fantastic Cable Car (spiced rum, Cointreau, and lemon juice).
I never would have thought gin with ginger together could be mild, but the Ginger Rogers is that. Ginger syrup and ginger ale combine with gin and lime and a sprig of mint atop, and somehow they all cancel each other out and put a velvet glove over the facepunch.
Desserts, too. I've been searching a long time for the chocolate cream pie of my childhood, only to encounter too many light tan, tasteless foam wedges from eateries that claim to specialize in pies. Cole's makes a good one. It's dark chocolate, and it's on an Oreo crust, and it's a dense whipped cream instead of something meringuish, and it's intoxicating, and no, you can't have any.
So who wins?
Historically, I don't really care who came first. In this duel of the dipped sandwich, for atmosphere and appeal and for a slight edge in sandwich caliber, I give it to Cole's.
This fine public house is open until 10 Sunday through Wednesday, ramps up to 11 on Thursday, and one in the morning Friday and Saturday. Attractive saloon specials appear in the afternoon.
* So sayeth I, the proprietor of DeadLounge.com.
( Categories: Cuisines (by Region), East Side/Downtown, American, Sandwiches/Burgers/Hot Dogs )
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