My po’boy is a hot mess. The spicy smoked sausage, slicked by its own fireball-orange grease, is determined to slide out the sides of the Leidenheimer loaf. The links are further lubricated by two types of mustard (yellow and Creole) and a slather of chili that ramps up the ooze factor. By the time I’m done with my sandwich at Domilise’s Po-Boy & Bar, I’ve gone through at least a dozen napkins.
But I savor my “dressed” flavor bomb because I know that with each indelicate chomp I’m biting into history — not just the history of this beloved po’boy shop in Uptown, but the very culinary history of New Orleans.
This city has either given birth or laid claim to a powerful collection of iconic food and drink: the Sazerac, blackened fish, jambalaya, gumbo, the Ramos Gin Fizz, muffulettas and beignets. But no dish is as prevalent and adored as the po’boy (or po-boy) sandwich. A humble hero that has been rightly elevated to cult status, the po’boy cleverly sandwiches some of the area’s other culinary prizes — oysters, shrimp, soft-shell crab — between an only-in-New Orleans French bread that sports a thin, shatteringly-crisp exterior and cottony innards.
It’s not hard to find po’boys stuffed with all manner of seafood, meats and cheeses in the city, but truly outstanding ones — including those from shops that develop fanatic followings — are exalted and staunchly defended.
Families and friends have been known to be divided over allegiances to a particular roast beef po’boy with debris gravy.
So important is the po’boy to the city’s cultural landscape it now has its own festival: the Oak Street Po-Boy Festival (poboyfest.com), which will take place on Nov. 18 in the city’s Carrollton neighborhood. Last year, it drew about 50,000 people. The festival features music, food booths and a po’ boy competition for the city’s best traditional and creative sandwiches open to vendors from the most humble mom-and-pop stores to white-tablecloth restaurants.
The po’boy is such a part of New Orleans that its history is written into the permanent exhibit of the Southern Food & Beverage Museum at the New Orleans Riverwalk. Before it earned its moniker, a po’boy was commonly referred to as a “loaf” — a French bread sandwich filled with fried potatoes with gravy, fried seafood or meats. The exhibit says it took the disgruntlement of the city’s streetcar drivers to define the po’boy.
On July 1, 1929, the motormen and conductors of Division 194 of the Amalgamated Association of Electric Street Railway Employees went on strike. Bennie and Clovis Martin, brothers who opened Martin Brothers Coffee Stand and Restaurant in the French Quarter in 1922, were former streetcar conductors. Natural supporters of the union, the Martins vowed to provide striking workers with free meals, including sandwiches. According to popular lore, when one of the Martins saw a striker approaching the store, they would say, “Here comes another poor boy.” The name stuck.
The Martins also contributed to the evolution of French bread in New Orleans. In the early 20th century, the growing popularity of “loaf” sandwiches led to changes in bread that would strike a balance between a crisp crust and a density that would stand up to gravies and mayonnaise but not compete with the flavor of Gulf seafood. What was needed was bread that a diner could bite into without cutting the roof of his mouth, which could happen with traditional French bread. The Martins, local history says, worked with baker John Gendusa to change the shape of a French loaf to be wider and with flat ends (traditional French bread’s narrow ends created waste). A generously-sized sandwich made with re-engineered bread soon became the po’boy norm thanks to the Martins.
Ask any New Orleanian and he will tell you a po’boy starts first with proper po’boy bread, which is available only in New Orleans, said culinary authority Poppy Tooker, host of Louisiana Eats!, a popular radio show program on WWNO in New Orleans. “It’s the only place you can create the loaf with the crispy outside and soft, tender inside,” she said. “And it’s only good for 24 hours and then is turned into bread pudding.”
A cookbook author who treasures the foods and food history of New Orleans, Tooker is a happy advocate of the Oak Street Po-Boy Festival, not just because it’s fun, but also for its celebration of an iconic foodstuff that she feels is endangered.“There are only three French bread bakers for po’boy bread left in New Orleans,” she said, listing Alois J. Binder Bakery, John Gendusa Bakery and Leidenheimer Baking Co., the city’s preeminent baker of po’boy bread. At one time there were as many as 200 French bread bakers in the city.
“This is why the po’boy festival is important and why it happens. The po’boy is a vital, iconic piece of New Orleans culinary culture. My motto is ‘You’ve got to eat it to save it.’ You have to create a taste for it and a market for it or it will become extinct.”
While even the most casual po’boy consumer probably couldn’t imagine a day when the sandwich no longer existed, one need only reference a tragedy like Hurricane Katrina, which wiped out city businesses that never recovered or rebuilt.
Today, the city has no better culinary ambassador than the po’boy. In fact, the Leidenheimer trucks are painted with cartoon characters saying “Sink Ya Teeth Into A Piece of New Orleans Cultcha — A Leidenheimer Po-Boy!”
A delicious bite of culture it most certainly is.
Bring your appetite when you’re hunting down a New Orleans po’boy. A full sandwich is about 12 inches long. A half size is sometimes called a “shorty.” A po’boy, by the way, is never enunciated as “poor boy.” If you take your sandwich “dressed” that means it’ll come with mayonnaise, lettuce, tomato and pickles.
• Parkway Bakery & Tavern: Tracing its history to its founding in 1911, Parkway began making po’boys in 1929. It closed in 1993 and was purchased by Jay Nix who reopened it in 2003. The restaurant was under 6 feet of water after Katrina, but reopened in December 2005 serving its famous hot roast beef po’boys. The menu includes fried potato po’boys (an homage to the earliest humble po’boy filling), as well as a “surf and turf” (roast beef and fried shrimp covered in gravy), alligator sausage link, barbecue beef and hot dog po’boys. Graced with a lively full bar, Parkway is a sprawling neighborhood joint with a lot of personality. 538 Hagan Ave.; 504-482-3047, www.parkwaypoorboys.com/. Sandwiches range from $8 to $12.
• Mahony’s Po-Boy Shop: Opened in 2008, this newcomer quickly became a local favorite for its high-quality ingredients and culinary imagination. It won the Po-Boy Preservation Festival (now called Oak Street Po-Boy Festival) two consecutive years with its fried chicken livers and Creole coleslaw po’boy and its now signature “Peacemaker” po’boy stuffed with fried oysters, bacon and cheddar cheese. Its grilled shrimp and fried green tomatoes with remoulade sauce also is a highlight. The wait for a table and for the food may try your patience but the po’boy rewards are great. The menu also includes daily specials (gumbo, spaghetti and meatballs) as well as salads and desserts. 3454 Magazine St.; 504-899-3374, mahonyspoboys.com. Sandwiches range from $6.95 to $13.95
• Liuzza’s by the Track: Not to be confused with Liuzza’s Mid-City restaurant, this modest restaurant and bar sits only steps from New Orleans Fair Grounds Race Course, hence the name. The kitchen is known for its barbecue shrimp po’boy. Not really barbecued, the shrimp are poached in a lavish bath of butter and spices and stuffed in a hollowed French bread pistolette. Just as good, if not better, is the fried shrimp po’boy, expertly cooked and pristinely dressed. Mobbed during the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, which takes place on the race course fairgrounds, Liuzza’s is otherwise a sweet neighborhood joint with good food. 1518 N. Lopez, 504-218-7888. Sandwiches from $5.95 to $11.95.
• Domilise’s Po-Boy & Bar: Regarded by many as the queen of the po’boys, this Uptown shop sports a kitchen so small it’s almost impossible to believe it can keep up with the hungry lines that form each day. Fried shrimp, fried oysters and roast beef are the standard bearers here, but don’t discount the cheeseburger po’boy or the smoked hot sausage. The hot sauces and mustards here further distinguish Domilise’s in the taste department. Lovably homely and seriously needing a paint job, Domilise’s is one of the most authentic slices of New Orleans you can get. And the po’boys are perfection. 5240 Annunciation St., 504-899-9126. Sandwiches from $7.50 to $16.
• Tracey’s: Order at a window, grab a beer, take a seat and drink it all in. There’s more to this sports bar than meets the eye. It is involved in one of the city’s great po’boy rivalries with its neighbor, Parasol’s Bar & Restaurant. Here’s the short story: The owners of Parasol’s, long known for their roast beef po’boy, sold the business to out-of-towners in 2010. This was not welcome news to Jeff Carreras who had operated Parasol’s for a dozen years. So Carreras took his staff and his roast beef recipe and opened Tracey’s, only a block from Parasol’s. Locals are arguing about who has the better po’boy. 2604 Magazine St.; 504-899-2054, traceysnola.com. Sandwiches from $5.50 to $11.50.