Top Poor Boys: Roast Beef
For which this writer spent months taste-testing (using lots of napkins on the way)
JEFFERY JOHNSTON PHOTOGRAPH
(page 1 of 4)
Eleven years ago, when I moved to New Orleans from a Western resort town where hummus on whole-grain bagels was a lunch standard, poor boys were exotica. Trying them in every variety helped me to overcome a lifelong fear of mayonnaise, a prejudice against weightless white bread and the notion that a sandwich is merely something to tide you over between breakfast and dinner. Back then, a poor boy at lunch was enjoyable but often crippling, so filling that it destroyed any possibility of eating dinner. But over time the poor boy became comfort food, a sandwich to turn to for both physical sustenance and emotional connection to place.
Who, for example, doesn’t remember eating her first post-Hurricane Katrina poor boy? (Mine was a grilled shrimp at Guy’s Po-Boys). The path from Louis Armstrong International Airport to Parkway Bakery and Tavern (and R&O’s and Parran’s and Galley Seafood) is well-worn – unpacking can wait. And what could better affirm a gal’s affection for this city than finding herself in the company of eight strangers – all women – on a recent Wednesday two minutes before opening time waiting to rush the doors at Mahony’s Po-Boy Shop? The salads at Mahony’s are very good, but every last one of us ordered a poor boy.
I had a roast beef, dressed, that day. We decided to focus on roast beef poor boys in this article because roast beef seems to be the quiet but unofficially official poor boy of New Orleans, the poor boy of maximum opinion and controversy and the poor boy that old-timer New Orleanians miss most when they wax poetic about the poor boys of yore (see: “Ain’t Dere No More” sidebar). Perhaps natives have a genetically transferred appreciation for the dependability of roast beef, which would have been more consistently available than seafood back before refrigeration and deep freezers. Or, perhaps it’s the sloppy, multiple-napkin, love-me-or-leave-me attitude of the city’s most talked-about roast beef poor boys that engenders such reverence.
Whatever the reason for their prominence, roast beef poor boys existed in New Orleans back when French bread sandwiches were still called “loaves.” The sandwich earned its current name at Martin Brothers’ Coffee Stand & Restaurant, which opened in the French Market in 1922 and later moved to the corner of St. Claude Avenue and Touro Street. The brothers Bennie and Clovis Martin, Acadiana natives, had worked as union streetcar conductors prior to becoming restaurateurs, and they sided strongly with New Orleans streetcar operators during the railway workers’ strike of ’29. In a letter dated Aug. 6 of that year, the brothers wrote to the striking carmen of Division 194, offering free meals to any of them who passed by their French Market restaurant. “We are with you ’til h– –l freezes, and when it does, we will furnish blankets to keep you warm,” they wrote.
According to Michael Mizell-Nelson, an associate professor at the University of New Orleans who wrote a chapter about New Orleans French bread for the book New Orleans Cuisine: Fourteen Signature Dishes and Their Histories, the Martins supplied strikers with sandwiches for several months at least. New Orleanians began calling the strikers – and they began calling themselves – “poor boys,” not entirely without irony. The term eventually became attached to the sandwiches that the “poor boys” ate without charge. Even paying customers at Martin Brothers in the 1930s spent just 10 cents for a 15-inch sandwich, and 15 cents for a 20-inch half-loaf. Lettuce and tomato sandwiches were free for everyone.
Around this period, writes Mizell-Nelson, “The restaurant purchased 12 to 22 head of cattle at a time and employed their own butcher to prepare the meat.” Certainly not all that beef became hamburger steak. It is safe to assume that at the very least the roast beef gravy ladle at Martin Brothers’ passed over the strikers’ poor boy sandwiches.
Local food radio personality and author Tom Fitzmorris, a native New Orleanian, is adamant about the spelling of “poor boy.” That is how Bennie and Clovis spelled it, he says. So there. The publisher of this magazine agrees and has argued the matter more than once in these pages (see Inside, pg. 6). Other local publications have adapted the in-print spelling to reflect a modernized, conjunct – some may call it sloppy – pronunciation of the sandwich’s name: “po-boy.” That I feel obligated to devote a paragraph to the topic of how the sandwich is spelled and why speaks, I think, to the intensity of emotion with which New Orleanians regard the poor boy. If the Rio Grande Gorge were filled with gravy, that still wouldn’t compete with how deep the story of New Orleanians and their poor boys runs. Which is why this Top 10 roast beef poor boys list is not meant to end the dialogue or stem any controversy, but rather fan the passions of the roast beef enthusiasts among us.
It was not my intention at the start of this project to remain ecumenical – honest evaluation was the goal – but this list does contain representatives from all three roast beef styles most commonly found in poor boys. There is the sliced beef variety, for which the meat is sliced either from a roast prepared in-house or from a processed deli-type loaf; the pot-roast variety, wherefore the meat is pulled from a roast and either laid upon the bread in large hunks or chopped; and the debris variety, which can be prepared in a couple of ways (roasted, boiled) and results in moist, shredded meat that recalls what happens when you put a roast in a slow cooker and forget about it for 10 hours. (Technically, debris is bits of meat and char that fall from a roast during cooking and mingle with the pan drippings, essentially creating a meaty gravy. But few poor boy shops produce enough debris in exactly this way to meet the demand for debris sandwiches. So cooks create alternative pathways to a debris-type poor boy experience.)
While I set out to compile a Top 10 list without ranking, one roast beef poor boy did rise to the top like yeasted dough in a proof box. The remaining nine are listed in alphabetical order by restaurant name.
My devotion to Mahony’s roast beef blossomed a couple of years ago during pregnancy. When nothing else tasted right, or even began to address my bottomless hunger, a large Mahony’s roast beef and gravy, dressed, extra pickles, with a side of fries, did me right every time. As I also took a new liking to processed cheese and the strangely doughnut-smelling seasoned fries at Rally’s during those nine months, my evaluation of Mahony’s roast beef needed to be tested. Which is why I put Mahony’s at the tail-end of my roast beef poor boy circuit, at which point I was, honestly, ready to eat some shrimp. But there it was, my old friend, when I unrolled the white paper that envelopes even the poor boys intended to be eaten within the restaurant. And I was ready for it.
I had snapped a quick photo of every previous poor boy I had tasted on the circuit, but the thought never occurred to me at Mahony’s. I needed to eat this one now. It contained large, meaty lobes of beef that appeared to have been tenderly tugged from a roast, invisible layers of nearly liquid fat melting into the meat as I chewed. There was, as usual, an herbaceousness that evoked bay and thyme. The gravy and meat were one, the former clinging to the latter as if magnetized, beefy and thick but not at all suggestive of flour or cornstarch. The sesame bread from Leidenheimer Baking Co. was just slightly toasted, enough to enable eating the entire sandwich as a sandwich, but not so sturdily that I felt robbed of the messiness that roast beef poor boy lovers brag about enduring as if they’ve summitted Kilimanjaro. (You may also order poor boys at Mahony’s with unseeded bread instead.)
This is not the most traditional preparation of roast beef in New Orleans. Mahony’s chef-owner, Benjamin Wicks, is a native New Orleanian, and he loosely modeled his restaurant after Norby’s, the neighborhood poor boy restaurant nearest to his childhood home in Uptown that once operated where Patois is now. But he learned his craft in culinary school and prepares his roast beef by braising it in a traditional French style – with a mire poix of seasoning vegetables, fresh herbs and red wine. Wicks estimates that 25 percent of his native New Orleanian customers are partial to the more common sliced version of the sandwich and turn their noses up at his roast beef. He says he feeds those customers Dirty Fries, smothered in gravy and cheese, to keep them happy.
The texture of the roast beef at R&O’s is so unique that I asked manager Ulysses John (“U.J.”) Mollere for a precise description of its preparation. I wish I could relate what he told me. The steps were so numerous and complex – he used words like “boil,” “steak,” “sliver,” “bamboo,” “slicer” – that I decided to just go with the result: “debris.” At R&O’s, debris looks like chips of beef suspended in a substantial, peppery, satin-finished gravy. The kitchen’s method of toasting its seeded Leidenheimer bread is just as labor-intensive as its roast beef preparation. Cooks dip the top half of the bread in gravy and apply beef and gravy to the bottom half; they slide both halves into a convection oven, open-face, so that all surfaces toast. As at Parasol’s, you may not get the satisfaction that wrangling with a messy roast beef poor boy can bring, but instead you get to enjoy eating your sandwich.
If a restaurant, corner store or sandwich shop serves a poor boy in New Orleans, chances are red-hot that a traditional roast beef version is at the top of the list (Ye Olde College Inn and Stanley were two exceptions I encountered during this research). It would, therefore, be impossible for one person to taste every roast beef poor boy in the city in the span of a few months and also, well, live. For this article, I ate 30 roast beef poor boys.
For the sake of fairness – and also because I tend to prefer them this way – I ordered each roast beef poor boy “dressed.” With just a few minor differences, this resulted time and again in a sandwich lavished with mayonnaise and garnished with shredded lettuce, tomato slices and pickle chips.
Early in my research a friend commented that roast beef poor boys always benefit from a few dashes of hot sauce, and I learned to agree with him. The vinegar component of hot sauce adds zing, a dimension of brightness, to what is by nature a fairly dark and one-dimensional sandwich. Pickles do the same while also providing crunch.
Two other friends recommended utterly unorthodox additions that tasted good enough to mention here. One adds Zapp’s Creole Tomato potato chips to his favorite roast beef poor boy (from R&O’s). Another loads hers at Mahony’s with wispy onion rings.
Mahony’s Po-Boy Shop
3454 Magazine St., 899-3374