Poor Boy Sandwiches
Sandwiches, New Orleans Style
Scroll down for a list of reviewed poor boy shops.
In most culinary centers of the sandwich-eating world, you can find a style of sandwich unique to that locale. We have two of those in New Orleans. One of them is the muffuletta, about which more elsewhere. The other is a vast range of sandwiches called poor boys (or po-boys).
All poor boys begins with New Orleans-style French bread, lighter in texture than a classic French baguette or the Americanized "French" bread you find in supermarkets. The long loaf with its thin but shattering crust is sliced from end to end. Then the bottom half is spread with mayonnaise and/or mustard (both are optional and replaceable with the likes of ketchup, tartar sauce, etc.).
It's topped with one or more of an infinite variety of main ingredients: sliced (or shredded) meats (hot or cold), fried seafood, cheese, or even (in one unique specimen) French fries. A gravy (usually brown) may go over the meats. (If it's roast beef or the French fries, the gravy is essential.) The sandwich is finished with lettuce, tomatoes, and pickles (at the option of the customer, and the top half of the bread (spread with the same condiments as the bottom half was.
If this is a conscientious maker of poor boys, the whole sandwich will then be put into a hot oven to toast the bread. That step is not nearly as common as it should be, but it's the magic touch that turns a good poor boy into a great one. It comes down to use all the way from the inventor of the sandwich: Martin's Poor Boy Restaurant. With the assistance of John Gendusa Bakery (which created the long, uniform-cross-section poor boy loaf), Bennie and Clovis Martin rolled out the poor boy sandwich to an eager New Orleans in 1929.
In the universe of poor boys are two sub-categories, each of which is a bit different from the standard. Fried seafood poor boys (sometimes called loaves, as in "oyster loaf" or "shrimp loaf") often omit the lettuce and tomatoes in favor of melted butter, pickles and hot sauce. You don't see gravy or cheese on these much, either.
The other poor boy offshoot is of rather recent popularity, since around 1990. Italian poor boys use the same bread, but the meats are things like sliced meatballs, sliced Italian sausage, or panneed veal or chicken. These are topped with red sauce and mozzarella cheese, and then put into the oven until the cheese melts. Often the bread is a sesame-seeded version of French bread. Italian poor boys are terrific.
The king of the poor boys, however, remains the hot roast beef with gravy. The beef is braised for hours, throwing off the juices which will combine with the braising liquid to make the gravy. (At least it is in the good places. A lot of poor boy shops buy the beef already cooked and sliced, and pre-made gravy.) The gravy combines with the dressings to create an utterly unique flavor. It may look like a hoagie or a grinder or a Philly cheese steak, but the flavor is a thing apart.
One more thing: beware of the widespread celebration of "sloppiness" in a poor boy. Too much gravy makes the sandwich fall apart, without adding any goodness.
Lists of hamburgers and other kinds of sandwiches can be found elsewhere on NOMenu.com.