A po' boy, for the uninitiated, is a massive sandwich on French bread crammed with roast beef, ham, shrimp, oysters, meatballs, sausage or even French fries. It's unlike any hoagie, grinder or submarine sandwich you've ever had.
Some say the bread is the secret ingredient. G.H. Leidenheimer Baking Co., New Orleans' best-known bread supplier, daily sells about 50,000 loaves of their light, crisp-crusted French bread to po' boy proprietors. A standard 32-inch loaf, which has a distinctive alligator-skin pattern on the crust, can be cut into three or four sandwiches. The bakery makes as many as four deliveries a day to some customers, in vans emblazoned with the slogan "Sink ya teeth into a piece of New Orleans cultcha — a Leidenheimer po-boy!"
The po' boy legend — like so many Southern legends — begins with two brothers, Bennie and Clovis Martin, bakers and former streetcar drivers. In 1929, during a months-long streetcar strike in New Orleans, they handed out free sandwiches made from leftovers to the striking drivers. As one would approach their restaurant near the French Market, one brother would yell to the other, "Here comes another poor boy." The name stuck and the sandwiches, which later cost 10 cents apiece, became so popular that carhops would carry orders to customers parked blocks away when the restaurant's lot overflowed.
In the 75 years since its invention, the po' boy has inspired many inventive variations — and strong opinions. When I came to New Orleans with my family in May, I set out to find the best. But I didn't want to leave anything to chance. I consulted reviews, surveys and guidebooks before arriving. Then I asked the top po' boy makers to weigh in on their competitors.
I also just asked around. During our first taxi ride, I explained my mission to our cabby, Tony, who quickly rattled off 20 of his favorite po' boy joints. But I persisted: Which one is the best?
"Ain't no best," Tony said. "They all good."
I'd have to agree. But, adjusting for bias, here are the po' boys that the experts — myself included — agree are even better than good.
A temple to food, this New Orleans institution serves several award-winning po' boys. The line goes out the door and into the street; inside, it hugs the sandwich counter, following a path worn deep into the tile floor. Take a number, scan the menu on the wall, place your order and maneuver your way to the bar for a drink — maybe a Barq's root beer or an Abita lager.
At lunchtime, there are five perpetually filled tables and wall-to-wall "to go" customers mingling in the aisles. My wife, Nancy, and I sat at the bar with our 3-year-old daughter, Hannah. Nobody seemed to mind. When you're finished eating, one of the five women at the counter will add up your tab longhand on a scrap of paper.
On the advice of a food guide, I ordered the off-menu po' boy with fried shrimp, Swiss and roast beef gravy, which turned out to be my favorite of the trip. The delicate, lightly breaded shrimp occasionally popped out of the sandwich, but none went to waste. The mix of tastes — shrimp, gravy and hot sauce — proved unexpectedly delicious. When I ran out of napkins, I licked my fingers. It's that kind of place.
Domilise's was also the farthest off the beaten tourist path — a 15-minute hike from the St. Charles streetcar line. The neighborhood goes from upscale to dicey in a few blocks, so a rental car might be the best transit option. The trip is worth it.
This restaurant churns out 100,000 pounds a year of its claim to fame — black ham with crisp, caramelized crust. The Famous Ferdi Special, Mother's most popular sandwich, is named for customer Ferdi Stern, who asked for a little ham on his roast beef po' boy. The Ralph is a Ferdi with cheese, and the John G piles on turkey too, making for a monster. All traditional po' boys come "dressed," New Orleans-speak for all the fixins — shredded cabbage, pickles, mayonnaise, Creole and yellow mustard. Tomatoes are frowned upon.
We ordered our po' boys to go. Back at the hotel, I gleefully assembled my roast beef po' boy with "debris" — the slow-cooked roast beef that falls into the gravy while cooking. Yes, that is roast beef with roast beef on top. I forked the debris, which came in an 8-ounce foam cup, onto the sandwich one bite at a time. After the euphoria of my first taste, I realized we'd forgotten napkins. I wiped my hands on the bedspread and plowed onward.
Locals like to denigrate Mother's because it fills with tourists from the high-rise hotels in the central business district and sets its prices accordingly. The $13 soft-shell crab po' boy, in particular, makes the locals blanch. But most sandwiches cost from $5 to $9, just like at other places.
By my count, Johnny's had the most po' boys on the menu — 50 — of any place I visited. Besides all the basic models, variations include the BLT, bacon and eggs, crab cake, French fry, country fried steak and tuna salad.