French dips with a side of L.A. politics

Sure, the outcome of Tuesday’s election is a foregone conclusion, with Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa set to pummel nine good citizens he steadfastly refused to debate. But the same can’t be said about another contest: Who makes the best French dip sandwich in Los Angeles, Phillipe the Original or Cole’s?

I’ve been wanting for months to sample the restaurants’ sandwiches side by side, and last week I had an idea: What better way to encourage political discourse, I thought, than to chew the fat while chewing the fat. If the mayor wouldn’t meet his opponents at the debate podium, maybe he would meet them over lunch.

At the end of the meals, we’d pick a winner between Phillipe’s and Cole’s, both of whom lay claim to having invented the French dip.

I got off to a rough start, though, trying to corral the candidates. James Harris, who’s running as a socialist, had a prior commitment. Such a shame. He’s a union meat packer, which would have made him the perfect roast beef judge.


But then I reached Walter Moore, an attorney making his second run for mayor. He was in. Phil Jennerjahn, who calls himself an entertainer, was in, and he recruited David “Zuma Dogg” Saltsburg, a community activist and professional gadfly to the 10th power.

And the mayor?

You’ll be surprised to hear he declined.

A spokesman said he was too busy being mayor to judge roast beef.

Maybe, but from where I sit, the contest would have fit right in with the mayor’s daily menu of photo-ops. His spokesman argued that one of the mayor’s important tasks last week was to celebrate the opening of a new electric truck factory.

A worthy cause, no doubt. But if the mayor were really on the ball, he would have arranged a trade-in deal for his tone-deaf transportation deputy Jaime de la Vega, who drives a big honking Hummer through the most congested streets in the nation.

But I digress.

“Well, the presentation is exquisite,” Walter Moore said as he took the first bites of French dip in a booth at Phillipe’s.

Jennerjahn liked his sandwich, too. Between bites, he explained how he had the GOP base locked up and insisted he’d pull 12% of the vote Tuesday. When I suggested he was dreaming, he had a quick response.

“You’re high on drugs,” he said, adding that I was “underestimating the evangelical vote.”

Zuma Dogg, who was dressed in a T-shirt on which he’d scrawled “Zuma Dogg for Mayor,” didn’t get the full Phillipe’s experience because he doesn’t eat meat. But he seemed to appreciate his tuna sandwich.

All in all, it was a congenial group, with Zuma Dogg even apologizing to Moore, the most serious of Villaraigosa’s challengers.

“I feel sorry for Walter. He has to be surrounded by all these wacky candidates,” Zuma Dogg said.

I guess here is the point in the column where I should note that the day after the contest, Zuma Dogg was questioned and released by police after he had allegedly left a threatening phone message for another candidate, Pastor Craig X. Rubin, whose signature issue is his support of medical marijuana.

Villaraigosa’s star does brighten, I must admit, against this constellation of contenders.

But at least they were willing to debate the issues facing Los Angeles. Moore glanced at the photos of old L.A. on the walls and commented on the glory days when the city actually had good mass transit.

“We got the Subway to the Sea,” Zuma Dogg said mockingly, as if the mayor’s dream project would not happen in our lifetimes. “Where is it? I wanna get a token, y’all.”

Jennerjahn conceded that he might not win, but said he has been called “a rising star.”

“I believe in myself,” he said.

I asked Moore if he could see a scenario in which Jennerjahn wins Tuesday’s election.

“Yes,” he said. “A tragic accident kills the other nine candidates.”

I’ve dined with the mayor before, and you know what? He’s not as much fun as these guys.

“If the mayor were a sandwich,” Zuma Dogg said, “he’d be all bun.”

I bet Jennerjahn $20 he wouldn’t get 10% of the vote. We shook on it and he repeated his claim, “You’re high on drugs.”

On the way to Cole’s, I bumped into a pedestrian who was vaguely aware that an election was coming up, and he could not pronounce the mayor’s name. At the restaurant, our waiter said he didn’t intend to vote, and the bartender was not particularly interested either.

I’m guessing the turnout will be no more than 15% of registered voters, which is remarkable when you think about it. We’ve got a mayor who hasn’t set the world on fire, but faces no real threat, even though it’s likely that after he’s reelected, he’ll try to ditch the city in a run for governor.

On, now, to matters of greater local interest. We ordered three French dip sandwiches and one grilled cheese.

“Now this is the sandwich of the Zuma Dogg administration,” said you-know-who as he dunked his grilled cheese into a cup of tomato soup.

The roast beef was pretty solid, too. The entire panel of judges was impressed with Cole’s toasty bun, the hardy cut of meat, the spicy pickle and the little cup of au jus -- which you don’t get at Phillipe’s. The judges were unanimous:

Slight edge to Cole’s on the sandwich.

But they were split on the total dining experience. How can anyone not love Phillipe’s, with the sawdust on the floor, the symphony of clinking utensils and casual conversation, and the 10-cent cup of coffee?

Zuma Dogg, who said he has no “fixed place of residence” and usually just camps wherever his borrowed car runs out of gas, said he had not eaten this well in months. “I’m definitely the hungriest candidate on the ballot.”

He used to have a public access TV show and said his fans included a number of celebrities in Malibu, where he used to live (hence Zuma). I asked why he didn’t run for mayor there, instead.

“I’m way too big for Malibu.”

The mayor’s challengers were in agreement that Villaraigosa has been more adept at self-promotion than problem-solving, and that his City Hall is a cozy clubhouse for high and mighty insiders whose demands trump the needs of lowly citizens.

Would the mayor really stand out from his nine challengers, Moore asked, if not for his multimillion-dollar advantage?

Well, yes, actually. And in fairness, Villaraigosa has had a few substantial accomplishments in his first term, despite a genetic weakness for creating his own distractions.

But the mayor hasn’t met expectations, let alone his own promises. We deserve better, and as he trips toward a second term, it’s time for him to answer the question on so many minds:

Where’s the beef?