“I don’t get it,” my reluctant dining companion said. “It’s just a sandwich.”
I’ll admit the po’boy is technically a sandwich, but — and this is a BIG but — it is not just a sandwich. Po’boys are as iconic as gumbo or étouffée in New Orleans, where they originated, and even throughout southern Louisiana.
The story goes that during a streetcar strike in 1929, the owners of the Martin Brothers Coffee Stand and Restaurant, both of whom had worked as streetcar operators, fed striking workers free sandwiches, calling out “here comes another poor boy” as hungry strikers walked through the door. The strikers lost, but the “poor boy” name stuck.
Who knows if the story is true, or what the original po’boy was comprised of, although these days anything goes, including fried shrimp, oysters, catfish, ham, all manner of sausages, roast beef, and yes, even French fries.
Somewhere along the way, “poor boy” was shortened to “po’boy,” although New Orleans Magazine is making a gallant — if futile — attempt to reinstate the original “poor boy” moniker. Good luck with that.
On a recent trip to New Orleans and Cajun Country, I wasn’t on a mission to eat as many po’boys as I could, but once you taste one, you’re bound to crave another.
We began at Domilise’s in New Orleans, based on a tip from Phoenix food blogger Dominic Armato of Skillet Doux. It’s a 15-20 minute cab ride from the French Quarter, west of the Garden district and two blocks north of the Mississippi River in a modest neighborhood on Annunciation Street.
I didn’t know it at the time, but these po’boys would be the best of the trip. Maybe it’s because of the bread, with a particular crust — crisp but not flaky — and a tender crumb. The bread, from Leidenheimer Baking Company, is delivered twice daily in tall, brown paper sacks holding bundles of nearly 3-feet long baguettes.
Maybe it’s the old charm of Domilise’s itself, with octogenarian Dot Domilise still standing at the counter assembling sandwiches, that makes these po’boys stand out.
They are everything a po’boy should be: simple, hot and delicious.
Order it “dressed” and you get sliced tomatoes, shredded iceberg lettuce, and a thick slather of mayo. Depending on the po’boy, other “dressings” are added — hot sauce on the shrimp po’boy and “chili ketchup” and creole mustard on the pork sausage. Roast beef gets “debris” — aka, gravy.
Our next stop was Lafayette, anointed the best small town for food by Rand McNally in 2011 and recently christened “Tastiest Town in the South” by Southern Living magazine.
Ask around, and locals will tell you the best po’boy is at Olde Tyme Grocery, near the University of Louisiana Lafayette.
For comparison, I ordered the shrimp po’boy. Inside this half market – half restaurant is a confusing scene, but you order at one counter, and then cool your heels until it’s ready at a separate counter where you pay.
The bread is crustier than Domilise’s, and the shrimp are slightly larger and have more cornmeal and spices in the breading. It’s a close second.
A short 15-minute car ride east from Lafayette to Breaux Bridge, we learn that Le Café is the place for po’boys.
They apparently make a mean hamburger, too, but if you’re hankering for a po’boy, Le Café is the place.
Le Cafe’s version is different from the previous two, but the shrimp is plump and sweet. The batter is thick, flour only (no cornmeal) with mild seasonings. The bread is different, too, softer and less bread-y in the center.
I liked it — alot — but there was something more appealing about the first two po’boys that put this one a notch below. If I was in Breaux Bridge again, would I stop at Le Café for another one? You betcha. The shrimp was cooked perfectly and the batter was over-the-top crunchy.
Our next stop was Baton Rouge, and this time I called on chef/blogger/radio host Jay Ducote of Bite and Booze for some expert guidance. He gave us several options, and we settled on two — one dive and one upscale bistro.
George’s, the dive, has three locations in Baton Rouge. We chose the original one, located next to an overpass. Order at the counter and pay when they call your name and hand over the food.
There is a lot to crow about George’s shrimp po’boy, from the crackly crust to the highly seasoned flour breading to the plump, juicy shrimp, to the minimal amount of “dressing,” ensuring the shrimp is the star.
I’d put George’s shrimp po’boy just behind Domilise’s and the Old Tyme Grocery.
The next stop, Beausoleil, is the kind of bistro any neighborhood would be lucky to have. Topnotch service, a chalkboard listing local purveyors, and a menu full of gussied-up regional specialties made me wish we were staying in Baton Rouge longer than a quick pit stop.
I desperately wanted to try the fried chicken special, or the fried catfish with tomato courtboullion and dirty rice, but I’d come for the shrimp po’boy.
I have mixed feelings about this one. Oh, I ate every bite and enjoyed it, but I couldn’t help think that this could be even better on different bread.
The shrimp were fat and lightly breaded, so sweet and succulent, and the spicy aioli was terrific. The tomato was ripe and juicy, and the upgraded butter lettuce was a nice touch, too. I just didn’t like the soft-crusted, thin bread as much as others that came before.
I thought I’d had my fill of shrimp po’boys, but that wasn’t the case. At the New Orleans airport, waiting for a flight back to Phoenix, I caught the unmistakeable whiff of fried shrimp.
Following my nose, I marched past the lengthy line at Subway to The Praline Connection, with no line, and ordered my last shrimp po’boy.
All I can say is why were those people standing in line at Subway, when a few feet away was another tasty po’boy?
A bucketful of small, cornmeal crusted shrimp on a toasted French loaf, this po’boy was very good. Certainly better than anything at Subway.
Oh, and my reluctant dining partner who thought a po’boy was just a sandwich? Let’s just say I left him here, somewhere in the Atchafalaya Basin, to kindly explain that faux pas to the alligators. I wonder how that worked out?
5240 Annunciation Street, New Orleans, LA
Old Tyme Grocery
218 West St. Mary Blvd., Lafayette, lA
123 Rees Street, Breaux Bridge, LA
2943 Perkins Road, Baton Rouge, LA
7731 Jefferson Highway, Baton Rouge, LA
The Praline Connection at Louis Armstrong International Airport
900 Airline Drive, Kenner, LA