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In search of Anchorage's best French dip

Mara Severin

As a deep thinker and one-time philosophy minor, I feel it's only right to share my wisdom wherever and whenever I can. Here's an example: If you can dip one delicious thing into another delicious thing ... you should. This applies to french fries, crudité, tortilla chips, chicken wings and even -- on one memorable occasion which I won't go into -- lasagna. You're welcome.

Hence my love for the French dip sandwich. A classic American sandwich (despite the name), it pairs slow-cooked roast beef with your own personal gravy boat of salty, beefy jus for dipping. This is a sandwich that demands that you play with your food.

It was a shock for some dedicated co-philosophers when Blues Central closed its doors and took its signature French dip with it. Blues Central had been serving a classic preparation of this dish since 1964. In 2003, it even briefly served a "Freedom Dip" so you could get a side of patriotism or politics (depending on your point of view) with your sandwich.

To help fill the void, I decided to try the French dips created in some of Anchorage's more prominent kitchens. I chose five: Orso, Simon & Seafort's, City Diner, F Street Station and Club Paris. I established a few criteria. First, the beef needs to be the star of the sandwich and it should taste good all on its own, without jus, horseradish or cheese. Second, it needs to be served on bread that offers a crunchy crust with a soft, pliable interior, a roll that can soak up the jus without becoming a soggy mess. Third, the jus needs to be well balanced -- flavorful and savory but not so salty that it overpowers the ingredients. An additional note: some people consider cheese on a French dip to be a kind of culinary sacrilege. I am not among them. This leads me to another bit of wisdom: If you can add melted cheese to pretty much anything ... you should. You're welcome again.

The results were mixed. There were some highs and lows, but the highs were high indeed. There are some good contenders for the crown of French dip king in Anchorage. So light a candle for the Blues Central of old and give another sandwich a chance.

My least favorite French dip was at Orso ($14.95). The texture of the beef was decidedly off. Described as "shaved" on the menu, the thin beef slices seemed overly processed, almost slick, as if they had been taken from a cold-cuts package. There was no gradation of doneness; all of the beef was the same flat brown. If the beef was hand-carved in the kitchen, it had been re-heated in such a way as to destroy those coveted areas of rareness. The meat also seemed overly salty -- so much that I could barely detect the presence of fontina and white cheddar, an element I had been looking forward to. On the plus side, I liked the abundance of caramelized onions and the sweetness they imparted. Also, the Dutch "crunch" bread was one of my favorites -- a substantial roll with a crispy, bubbly crust. But despite some good components, the sandwich just fell flat. (C)

Next in line was City Diner ($11.95) -- a big jump up the line, I should add. The meat on this sandwich was clearly sliced right off the roast, thick and meaty with the nice grain you expect from a slow-roasted piece of beef. Some slices were rare, some more well done. The dish came with a nicely balanced horseradish sauce that had enough bite to add interest and clear the sinuses, but also enough creaminess to encourage a liberal hand. The jus was a bit of a disappointment, however; it seemed doctored with what tasted to me like soy sauce, a flavor I like but not in this context. But overall, this was a satisfying sandwich. (B-)

Almost tied with City Diner was Simon & Seafort's ($15.95). This was another sandwich with real evidence of hand-sliced goodness. The beef was nicely seasoned and tender (though, again, I tasted a strong presence of soy in the jus). This was a very similar showing to the City Diner sandwich and I'm not 100 percent sure why I'm giving it the edge. I hope it's not because of the spectacular view I enjoyed while eating it. OK, it's probably because of the spectacular view I enjoyed while eating it. Sorry, City Diner. (B)

Higher up on the scale was Club Paris ($12). Of the five, it was the first French dip I tried, and it set the bar pretty high. The sandwich is a straightforward pile of rare, tender roast beef on a hoagie roll with a side of truly eye-watering horseradish (the waitress warned me, which was a comfort as I dabbed my streaming eyes). I enjoyed the salty, bullion-y jus (my husband contends that it's too salty, so be aware of my high tolerance for sodium). It was a classic preparation in a classic setting, and being an old-school Anchorage institution, Club Paris probably comes closest to recreating the experience of eating a French Dip at the venerable Blues Central. (B+)

My hands-down favorite was the French dip at F Street Station (interestingly, the least expensive of the group, coming in at $10). This is the second time this pub, which is generally not on my radar, has come up on top in a culinary best-of battle (they earned top marks in my eggs Benedict challenge). The sandwich is only available on Fridays and that, right there, filled me with confidence. It's a good indication that they consider this item a specialty and are making it lovingly each week from scratch.

I arrived early for lunch with my husband and took a seat at the kitchen side of the bar. Two friendly chefs (who introduced themselves as Joe and Larry) were hustling through a busy lunch service and looked like they were loving it. Plate after plate of good-looking food was turned out of the tiny prep area like clockwork. It's very entertaining to watch. As one French dip after another made it up to the pass, I started to panic -- what if they ran out? I grabbed a waitress and placed my order; my husband would have to fend for himself. Sure enough, moments after my husband arrived (I was halfway through my meal), Joe called out, "four French dips left!" My husband wisely bypassed the waitress: "I'll take one of those!" Joe responded, without missing a beat: "three French dips left!" All, I should add, before 12:30 p.m.

This sandwich will haunt my dreams. Perfectly cooked roast beef, sliced not too thick and not too thin, heaped onto a perfectly toasted French roll. A thick layer of melted smoked Gouda added a luscious creaminess and an assertive smoky flavor hinting, weirdly and wonderfully, of bacon. Underneath the sandwich was a small trickle of red juice -- a sure sign of a recently slow-cooked roast. The jus, too, was perfect: flavorful, but clean-tasting, with just the right salty tang. I'm already planning my next trip. Joe and Larry, save me one, OK? (A)

And here's my last pearl of wisdom for the week: If it's French dip Friday and you can make it to F Street Station for lunch ... you should. You're welcome.

As for Blues Central -- you'll be missed. But time (along with smoked Gouda) heals all wounds.


By Mara Severin
Daily News correspondent