November 19, 2015
Ask any self-respecting New Orleans resident and they’ll tell you this: the po boy is so much more than a humble sandwich – it’s a NOLA institution. At its best, the po boy – or poor boy – is a great leveller, capturing the essence of the city’s cultural melting pot and slamming it between two slices of French bread. It is, in short, a fundamental part of the New Orleans cuisine. Hungry yet?
The history of New Orleans po boys goes back to just before the Great Depression, when local streetcar workers went on strike in 1929. As a gesture of solidarity, a local café produced a sandwich to feed the workers, free of charge – and the po boy was born. The name itself comes from the shout that went up behind the counter when a union man walked in – “Here comes another po’ boy!”
Back then, the contents of the sandwich were pretty basic: ham, cheese, lettuce, tomatoes, pickles and mayonnaise. Nowadays though, the filling choice is only restricted by the ambition of the chef; after all, fame – and a hardcore local fanbase – is won and lost over a house speciality. Even so, ole favourites remain enduringly popular, and timeless classics include beef and gravy, Louisiana sausage such as Andouille, breaded shrimp, catfish and fried oysters. However, while the contents may vary, one thing remains the same – the bread. The crusty “French” baguette – evoking the city’s colonial past – is the factor that differentiates New Orleans po boys from any other sandwich in the US.
Of course, the best way to understand what makes a po boy so special is to try one. We’ve tracked down the best po boy places in the city, from old-school counter joints like Sammy’s to upscale restaurants like Red Fish Grill. After all, as everyone knows round here, the poor boy is the sandwich of kings.
French Quarter establishment Killer Poboys is located in the back of the Erin Rose bar and is famed for their international take on the classic New Orleans po boy. The location may be bare-bones, but the goods are to die for; some swear by the pork belly with its ginger, maple and rum glaze, others the coriander-lime Gulf shrimp. Whatever personal favourite you settle on, you’ll have a fun time finding it.
You’ll struggle to find a place to perch at this busy Magazine Street hole-in-the-wall, but what Guy’s lacks in ambience it more than makes up for in taste – and portion sizes. All sandwiches are cooked fresh and hard to fault, but really, it’s Guy’s own creation – tellingly called The Bomb – that stands out. A mouthwatering slab of crusty goodness crammed with fried shrimp, melted cheese, lettuce, tomato, and alligator sausage.
A touch more upmarket than most of the establishments here, Red Fish Grill is a casual seafood restaurant near to Bourbon Street that happens to have a decent range of seafood po boys as part of its lunchtime menu. Obvious standouts include the BBQ oyster po boy with blue cheese dressing and the blackened Redfish melt. The former is an award-winner, having scooped the gong for Best Seafood Po Boy at the Po-Boy Festival every year between 2011 and 2014.
A favourite of the Obamas when they’re in town, this casual restaurant overlooking Bayou St John cleaves to the classics. The hot roast beef with gravy is the one to go for, with the surf and turf coming a close second. Like most po boy places in town, Parkway sources their baguettes from the Leidenheimer bakery, meaning the bread has that distinctive texture, airy but brittle. Perfect, in other words, especially when washed down with an ice-cold Abita beer.
A city mourned when a grease fire destroyed this 24-hour corner deli in 2010, and a city celebrated when they reopened after sizeable restoration. One bite of the All That Jazz, a sandwich busting at the seams with grilled turkey, ham, swiss and American cheese, sautéed shrimp, mushroom and a spicy tartar “wow” sauce, explains why. Sure, it’s not going to win awards for comfort – eating in is not an option – but grab one to go and head to the nearest bench. Heaven.
Situated in the Gentilly neighbourhood, Sammy’s is a counter service lunch spot that, up until an appearance on the Food Network, didn’t get much tourist footfall. Now those committed to sampling some of the best New Orleans po boys are likely to be faced with a mixture of foodie tourists and hungry locals, and who can blame them? The Ray Ray is the house speciality, stacked high with fried chicken, ham and melted cheese.
Located a little further out in an industrial part of Jefferson, Crabby Jacks is a family-run business that’s worth seeking out. Owned by Jacques Leonardi, who owns the excellent Jacques-Imo’s Cafe (home of the alligator cheesecake), Crabby Jack’s Cajun menu features a selection of specialty po boys. Top of the pile is the slow roasted duck po boy, a unique reinterpretation of the ever-popular beef and gravy po boy. Just be prepared to get your hands a little dirty.
Thanks to our partnership with Delta, visiting New Orleans has never been easier. Why not try some of these po boys on your next trip?
Have you sampled any of these New Orleans po boys? Which is your favourite? Let us know in the comments section below.
Written by L F Brailey