In pursuit of the perfect po’boy
Ask a longtime New Orleans local the best way to order a po’boy, and chances are he or she will tell you to go for hot roast beef dripping with gravy or fried shrimp.
If anyone had asked me when I was living here in the 1980s, that’s what I would have said. But these days, there are more than two right answers—and the only constant about this quintessential local sandwich is the French loaf that’s crunchy on the outside with a soft blanket of goodness on the inside.
As the story goes, the beloved dish got its name in 1929, during a strike against the local streetcar company. Brother Clovis and Benjamin Martin, drivers-turned-restaurant owners, helped their former colleagues—jokingly referred to as “poor boys”—by giving them free sandwiches. Today, the sandwiches come on 6-inch or footlong loaves, usually “dressed” with lettuce, tomato and mayo (pickles are optional).
I wanted to rediscover the city through the modern incarnations of my former favorite snack. But since this was new territory, I enlisted two po’boy masters to help me on my quest: Jason Gendusa, 31, the great grandson of the inventor of the po’ boy loaf who manages the family bakery (and lives right next door); and 57-yearold Gary “Koz” Gruenig, who swept the floors of a po’boy restaurant at age 12 and now owns two restaurants (both use bread from Gendusa Bakery). These po’boy purists were also going on a quest of their own: Would they enjoy—and could they accept—untraditional varieties?
Our first stop is Milk Bar, located in the Garden District just off the St. Charles streetcar line. Owner Inta Phayer tells us that the restaurant’s name means “corner store” in her native Australia. We order the Thai chili lamb po’boy; hot from the oven, it’s loaded with roasted lamb, mozzarella, tomato, red onion, Thai sweet chili and a touch of sour cream. But before anyone takes a bite, Jason examines the bread, poking it with his finger (he does this at every stop). If it busts right through, it’s too hard. If it submits to gentle pressure without breaking, it’s perfect.
While Koz raves about the perfect blend of ingredients, both Koz and Jason have a problem: the bread. “It’s great—if only it were on the right kind of bread instead of this baguette,” Koz says. Adds Jason, “I’ve never eaten bread that’s not from our bakery. Neither has my meemaw, and she’s 94.” I suggest a fork. He samples the filling, decides the sour cream could go, then packs it up. “I’m taking the rest home, and switching out the bread,” he says.
A plain black-and-white sign and a red “Enjoy Coca-Cola” placard welcomes us to the next stop, Crabby Jack’s. Jack Leonardi, the chef/owner of the famed Jacques-Imo’s, opened this po’boy spot more than eight years ago. Here, the pièce de résistance is a slow-roasted duck po’boy. Manager Paul Harris explains that they rub the duck (minus the breast, which is used at JacquesImo’s) with Prudhomme’s meat rub and slow roast it. The duck bones are then simmered in roast beef stock to make a rich gravy. I open the white butcher’s paper to reveal a dripping 12-inch po’boy. The loaf is filled with more than a pound of duck, some pieces the size of my cell phone and all of them as tender as a filet. The hot brown gravy slightly melts the mayo to form its own unique sauce. Six wadded-up napkins later, I’m not even halfway done. “It’s a little sloppy, but it’s so tender, it melts in your mouth,” Jason says. (The bread was from Gendusa, so he approved.)
We move on from the messy to the civilized. Katie’s Restaurant & Bar, a block from the Canal streetcar line, is an orderly, two-story space with artwork on the walls. We pig out on the cochon de’lait (smoked pork) po’boy. Boston butt pork shoulder is stuffed with garlic, coated with a special meat rub and smoked for 10 hours before being stuffed inside a Gendusa pistolette and topped with coleslaw. “I’ve never had coleslaw on a po’boy,” Jason says. “In addition to having good flavor, I really liked the texture. Crunchier than the usual shredded lettuce.” Then owner Scot Craig presses the other half like a panini. Jason’s reaction? “It changes the texture of the whole sandwich. I know how I’m going to order it next time.”
We save the most expensive for last. The downtown Hilton New Orleans Riverside is home to Drago’s, the offspring of the seafood restaurant that started the charbroiled oyster craze. We watch as the oysters in their shells are placed over a two-foot-high open flame. Butter, loaded with garlic and spices, is ladled over them before they’re finished with melted parmesan and romano cheeses. This specialty is sold by the half-dozen or dozen, just like raw oysters on the half shell, but ask your server to turn it into a po’boy instead. A 12-inch one arrives with an order of fries.
“Look at this,” Jason says, shaking his head as he pokes the bread and the hard crust cracks at this touch. (He’s not surprised; this is not Gendusa bread.)
I agree the bread isn’t the best, but the scent of garlicky butter still draws me in. It is the richest one yet; I have to push back my chair after just a few bites. But Koz lectures me on wasting the sea’s delicacy: “Eat the oysters offa there. Don’t waste ’em.” So I devour them.
Still sated the next day, I stop by Gendusa Bakery to discuss our po’boy pursuit, to find out if Jason thinks there is a place for both traditional and gourmet versions in his beloved city. “There’s room for new as long as it’s good,” Jason says, pausing to think. “But when someone wants a po’boy, they don’t think ‘I want a cochon de’lait,’” he says. “They think, ‘I want roast beef or shrimp.’”
But I’m not sure if I do anymore.
MILK BAR 1514 Delachaise St; 504-891-9361
CRABBY JACK’S 428 Jefferson Highway, Jefferson; 504-833-2722
KATIE’S RESTAURANT & BAR 3701 Iberville; 504488-6582; www.katiesrestaurantandbar.com
DRAGOS 2 Poydras St; 504-584-3911; www.dragosrestaurant.com
Check out the 2010 New Orleans Po-Boy Preservation Festival taking place Nov. 14. www.poboyfest.com