A person can hardly swing a loaf of Leidenheimer French bread without smacking a place that makes a pretty good poor boy in this city. Truly, we’re blessed with an abundance of neighborhood corner stores and seafood joints that turn out delicious, overstuffed sandwiches. But aside from such stalwarts as fried oyster and roast beef is a crop of poor boys with a twist – versions featuring unusual ingredients, diverse cooking methods and variations on the poor boy theme. But be forewarned: Wear Sansabelt pants or your brand new favorite black spandex track suit to these places. These sandwiches are not for the faint of heart.

PEERLESS POOR BOYSFrench Fry Poor Boy at Parkway Bakery and Tavern

The Barbeque Shrimp poor boy at Pascal’s Manale is a good start. Their original, bib-sporting, peel-and-eat dinner version has been modified exclusively for the lunch menu. Instead of having to tangle with a pile of heads and shells, this dish is a study in ergonomics: Half a loaf of French bread is hollowed out and peppery shrimp cooked in molten butter are ladled into the cavity. The crust therefore stays crispy, the butt end of the bread serves as both a cap and sauce reservoir and, when tackled from the top down, it makes for a surprisingly un-messy sandwich. Until, of course, you reach the bottom – at which point it suffers catastrophic structural failure and shrimp and sauce come tumbling down all over the white linen tablecloth.

A tip: When we sat down, the friend I was dining with mentioned that he puts butter on the sandwich and I laughed at his joke. Only he wasn’t joking. When the sandwich arrived he garnished it with multiple pats of butter from the bread plate. Initially taken aback, I shrugged and followed suit. And now I know how to improve on an already excellent sandwich: More butter. Specifically, it’s the textural contrast of the cool butter against the melted that adds another dimension to the sandwich. Really.

Few poor boy preparations have inspired more buzz than Jacques-Imo’s over-the-top Deep Fried Roast Beef version. After all, this is a restaurant that revels in excess and while some of their dishes overreach, they have a good time doing it. This poor boy is lightly battered, then lowered into the fryer. A few modifications are made before the plunge – the sandwich is dressed with red and green bell pepper in lieu of lettuce and tomato, which presumably don’t fry well – but other than that it arrives as advertised with a pool of gravy for dunking and a salad (not deep-fried) alongside for balance. Yet for all the frying wizardry, I would’ve liked to have a little more flavor. And I found that at Crabby Jack’s.

Great poor boy options can be found at Crabby Jack’s, Jack Leonardi’s (of Jacques-Imo’s) terrific lunch outpost on Jefferson Highway, fortuitously located just a short airlift away from the cardiology wing of Ochsner Hospital. A Paneed Rabbit poor boy is one way to go, punched up with a Creole-mustard sauce; another is the justifiably famous Roasted Duck. Also great is the Cochon de Lait. Serious hunks of tender pork butt are simmered to melting tenderness in tangy gravy, then ladled onto Leidenheimer’s bread. The acidity of the pickles plays off the sweetness of the pork and sauce and the world is suddenly a happier place. Surprisingly, this was not too messy to eat, which can be construed as either a good thing or a bad thing by poor boy aficionados. I fall into the former camp and appreciate a sandwich I can enjoy during the work week that does not require a shower afterwards.

Along with their incomparable beer selection, Cooter Brown’s is arguably the reigning king of casual bar food. While other places might have an item or two that stands out, Cooter’s roster is loaded with pro-bowlers. Cooter’s takes it to the next level with its Coonass Special, a mega-caloric poor boy that arrives locked and loaded with a pair of Mrs. Wheat’s (of Jazz Fest fame) fried meat pies along with provolone cheese and gravy. It is kind of alarming to lift the bun of a poor boy and discover a deep fried pie – one gets the feeling that this would be illegal in California. Those wishing for something lavish yet sporting a bit more refinement can opt for the Boudreaux’s Special, a sister sandwich featuring Mrs. Wheat’s crawfish pies and Remoulade sauce in lieu of the spiced meat and gravy.

What better snapshot of the resilience of New Orleanians is there than the Parkway Bakery and Tavern? Originally opened in 1922 and family-operated until ‘95, it was purchased and restored by present owner Jay Nix, reopening to local acclaim in 2004. Then we all know what happened, yet following the briny immersion in ‘05 it reopened again in mid-December of that year and has been chugging along ever since.

Parkway epitomizes tradition and its interior is a shrine to blue-collar New Orleans. A Woolworth’s Luncheonette sign hangs over the counter and large families munch sandwiches at the communal tables inside. It is here you’ll find one of the city’s finest French Fry Poor Boys – one that’s grassroots-traditional yet still over-the-top. The roast beef debris studded gravy seals the deal. When the sandwich arrives, tightly wrapped in butcher paper, it has a heft that belies its size – like a baguette filled with plutonium. Gravy begins to stain the paper and the sandwich begs to be consumed on-site. One bite into it I see the appeal – what some might anticipate to be monochromatic is actually a study in textures: the lightness of the bread and the richness of the fries play off each other and the two starches together in one bite actually complement each other. Also, fans of soft-shelled crabs will be pleased to know that a poor boy featuring the crustacean is offered here as a special on Sundays on a first-come-first-served basis.

HONORABLE MENTION

Out in the Vietnamese community of Versailles in N.O. East stands the Dong Phuong Oriental Bakery. Here you’ll find a fantastic selection of Banh Mi sandwiches, akin to poor boys. These are served on homemade pistolletes, which are actually closer in form to a true French baguette than our New Orleans-style version: They are denser, chewier and less flaky. The different bread is one distinction, the fillings are another. Try the Chinese Pork with Hoisin Sauce (No. 4) and the Vietnamese Grilled Pork (No. 5) with firecracker hot peppers, shredded carrots and cucumber. None of the sandwiches are priced above $3, making them a great deal.

Grab more napkins
Pascal’s Manale
1838 Napoleon Ave.
895-4877

Jacques-Imo’s Café
8324 Oak St.
861-0886

Crabby Jack’s
428 Jefferson Highway
833-2722

Cooter Brown’s
509 S. Carrollton Ave.
866-9104

Parkway Bakery and Tavern
538 Hagen Ave.
482-3047

Dong Phuong
Oriental Bakery
14207 Chef Menteur Highway
254-0212