by Edward J. Branley, (c) 1994
[Additions and annotations by Chuck Taggart]
Hero. Sub. Hoagie. Grinder. These words are foreign to the vocabulary of the native New Orleanian. That's because here in New Orleans, we eat po-boys. Oh, we eat hamburgers, muffelettas, and sandwiches on sliced bread also, but the po-boy is a staple at lunch counters across the metro area.
The BreadWhat makes a po-boy special is the bread. A po-boy isn't a po-boy unless it's made with good quality, fresh French bread. New Orleans French bread has a crunchy crust with a very light center. The loaves are about 3' in length, and are about 3-4" wide. Time was that many a corner bakery made their own French bread, but there are only three bakerys left in town that make true French bread: Gendusa's, Leidenheimer's, and Binder's. [Note: The "wonderfully stubborn Reising family" were bought out by Leidenheimer's.] Many of the larger grocery stores make bread that they call "French bread," but it's not made in the old brick ovens that the real bakeries use, so it doesn't come out with the same contrast between crust and center.
The FillingsRoast beef and shrimp are the most popular fillings for a po-boy, but just about anything can be put inside a loaf of French bread and taste good. Freshness and quality are the two most important aspects of what goes inside a po-boy. Many places do an excellent hamburger or cheeseburger po-boy because they can cook the patties to order.
Same goes for seafood fillings like oysters and shrimp. Roast beef and ham are a different story. The average lunch counter doesn't roast their own meat anymore, so the places that do really stand out. A good gravy can go a long way to compensate for not roasting your own meat, which is why some otherwise average places do good barbecue beef and ham po-boys.
There's really no limit to what can be made into a po-boy. Streetcar Sandwiches does a great smothered duck po-boy, for example [when they stil existed, that is]. Fried catfish is growing in popularity. The low-fat movement has prompted several places to add grilled chicken breasts to their po-boy menus, but the combination of ingredients that make a great po-boy don't lend themselves to restricted diets, so this addition to the menus hasn't been that earth-shaking.
The name "po-boy" is, of course, a shortened version of "poor boy." The name stems from the fact that a po-boy used to be a very inexpensive way to get a very solid meal. The least expensive po-boys on the menu will almost always be those with the cheapest fillings. Luncheon meat, sausage, and French fries. French fries? You betcha! A French fry po- boy with roast beef gravy is a wonderful treat. Watching guys in suits eating French fry po-boys down in the CBD may seem like a "what is wrong with this picture" scene, but you won't understand until you try one. Same for a luncheon meat po-boy with roast beef gravy. Italian and hot sausage po-boys are cheaper than roast beef or shrimp, but they're still good if the sausage is good.
Dressed, or Nuttin' on it ...This is one of those questions than can hang up a tourist like a deer caught in the headlights. You think you've figured out whatever little place in which you're standing in line. You get to the front of the line, and you order your po-boy. The lady behind the counter asks a one word question: "Dressed?" You look at her like she's crazy. Of course you're dressed! No, silly, what about your sandwich? What do you want on it? Do you want it dressed with lettuce, tomato, pickles, mayo, or do you just want nuttin' on it?
Eating a po-boy either way is proper. Some people just want roast beef, gravy, and maybe a little Creole mustard. Some want theirs dressed all the way, so that the mayo and gravy mix together and fall out of the bread in a sloppy mess. Seafood po-boys are ordered with just butter, maybe butter and ketchup, or with the full treatment. The amount of mayo usually is the key factor in just how messy your sandwich will be. Remember, a po-boy place isn't McDonald's (and thank God for that) -- you'll get yours made the way you want it if you speak up.
Where to go?OK, all of this sounds good, so now you need to know where to go. It's been said that there's no bad food in New Orleans, just great and mediocre food. I cordially disagree with this one, because of some of the places in the CBD that pass for lunch counters are pretty poor. Not to mention the fact that those abominations called Subway have popped up all over the metro area. For a good po-boy, here are some suggestions:
After these, locals from all neighborhoods will normally chime in and advocate their favorites from where they grew up. Many are good, some are just average, but anyone who uses good bread can't be all that bad. I can tell you all about the good places in Metairie and Gentilly. My friend Steve can tell you all about Chalmette and Arabi. Others will put forward places Uptown or in the Quarter. The trick is to follow the locals. If you see everyone ordering meatball and sausage po-boys, you'll know that that place's red gravy is good. If everyone is ordering seafood, you'll get the picture quickly. Step back from the counter for a few customers and see what they're doing. If nobody orders the roast beef, skip it. That usually means it's undistinguished. Go with something that is grilled to order, like a hamburger or hot sausage po-boy. Enjoy!
- Mother's, Poydras and Tchopitoulas.
- Some say the best po-boy in town. I love the roast beef, others say skip the roast beef and order the ham with roast beef gravy. If you're really hungry, order the Ferdi, which is roast beef, ham, and debris (roast beef gravy with the pieces of meat that fall in as the roast cooks). No lettuce here; Mother's dresses their po-boys with cabbage. The plate lunches (gumbo, jamablaya, etc.) are also excellent, and the turtle soup is about the best in town, but locals come here for the po-boys. [Note: Mother's has the best baked ham in the known universe. -- Chuck]
- Uglesich's, 1238 Baronne St, across from Brown's Velvet Dairy.
- The best oyster po-boy in town, beyond a shadow of a doubt. This is a terrible neighborhood, but worth the adventure for lunch. Closes at 4pm. UPDATE: Uglesich's closed in 2005, amidst much weeping, wailing and gnashing of teeth from their admirers. Anthony and Gail are rumored to be bored with retirement, however ... and the rumors fly that they'll reopen on a limited basis with a limited menu "one of these days maybe soon" ... keep an eye on their website for any updates.
- Gene's Po-Boys, corner St. Claude and Elysian Fields. (504) 943-3861
- The. Best. Hot. Sausage. Po-boy. On. The. Face. Of. This. Planet. In fact, I challenge you to find any planet in this universe that has a place that serves better hot sausage po-boys. (I also challenge you to find any other building that's as shocking pink as this one.)
Seriously. Mind-bogglingly good. Deliciously seasoned patties of fresh Creole hot sausage, fried to order, layered with cheese (oh yes, yes indeed, order it with cheese), placed on perfect French bread and put in the oven just long enough to warm it through, make the cheese sag just to the point of being molten, and enough to make the bread crunch even more. I like it dressed, but this one might be even better with nuttin' on it. A work of art, pure heaven wrapped in white butcher paper, and it'll make you weep and moan with pleasure. It's a very different style of po-boy from the hot-smoke one at Domilise's, so consider them completely separate experiences.
Try if you can to overlook the fact that the place is a frightening-looking dump, making most little neighborhood joints look like the Grill Room at the Windsor Court. The people are nice, and all sorts of folks go there. Just go during the day ... this joint is open 24 hours, and it's a high-crime area late at night. -- Chuck
POST-KATRINA UPDATE: As of this writing Gene's, which suffered heavy wind and flooding damage after Katrina and the failure of the levees, has indeed reopened but were only serving ham, roast beef and burger poor boys, and had not yet ramped up to making hot sausage again. Call before going.
- Liuzza's, 3636 Bienville, Mid-City.
- Best Italian po-boys, and the "Frenchuletta," a muffeletta made on French bread instead of the round Italian bread. Liuzza's makes a great tomato sauce, which is why their sandiwches and pasta dishes are winners.
- Domilise's, 5340 Annunciation corner Bellcastle, Uptown.
- In my humble opinion, the hot smoked sausage po-boy with chili gravy and Creole mustard at Domilise's is an Intensely Religious Experience. Have a Barq's and some Zapp's Crawtators with it. -- Chuck
- Parasol's, 2533 Constance, Irish Channel.
- And deep in the heart of the Irish Channel it is, near the Garden District. Parasol's is another quintessential neighborhood joint, famous for it's po-boys as well as the "local color" of its denizens. A madhouse on St. Patrick's Day.
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Chuck Taggart (e-mail chuck)