I'd love to be able to tell you that roast beef po' boys and I have had a lifelong love affair. It'd make for great reading if my first experience with them was when my mother (a native New Orleanian, of course) used to bathe me in thick, garlicky debris gravy when I was but a wee child with a penchant for gator-baiting. How awesome would it be if I'd even worked my way through high school slicing a saucing tender roast beef at Parasol's, home of what's supposedly the best roast beef po' boy in the world?
I'd like to be able to tell you all this, but the truth is, the first roast beef po' boy I've ever had—the first po' boy period, in fact—was just a couple weeks ago during the last leg of a two-weekend* whirlwind tour of Southern Louisiana and New Orleans. But honestly, a single taste of that dripping, messy, beefy, savory braised meat is all you really need to feel like you've loved it your entire life.
*I mean two weekend, not two week—I came back to NY in the middle.
For those of you who are still like I was three weeks ago—tragically ignorant about one of the world's great sandwiches—here's how it breaks down.
In general, a po' boy is the Louisiana equivalent of a submarine sandwiches. So called because it used to be the staple food for the "poor boys" who'd hang around behind restaurants accepting any scraps they could and stuffing them into their sandwiches, the classic fillings include fried oysters, fried shrimp, and of course, roast beef.
Now "roast beef" is a bit of a misnomer, because the meat in question is actually boiled or braised before being cooked down in a thick, garlicky gravy until it literally begins to fall apart. The resultant sliced meat is piled high on top of one of the crusty, fluffy, and slightly chewy french loaves (more akin to a Vietnamese-style banh mi bread than anything else, really) and doused with copious amounts of the gravy, studded with bits of shredded beef "debris." Ask for your sandwich "fully dressed," and they'll add tomato, shredded lettuce, pickles and mayonnaise to the mix.
The sandwich at Parasol's has been regarded far and wide as one of the best in town, but here's a little hint: the chef has recently jumped ship and taken his crew and his famous po' boy with him to nearby Tracey's, the sports bar down the street. After downing one (along with a half dozen excellent boudin balls, a pitcher or two of Abita and some Zapp's Voodoo Chips), I vowed that my first order of business upon my reluctant exodus from bayou country would be to try and recreate this beast of a sandwich at home.
Like most of my research, after the initial tasting phase, the next order of operations is to scan the internet for clues. Fortunately, this one was easy. Guy Fieri actually has the chef walk through the entire process from start to finish on an episode of Diners, Drive-ins and Dives.
Watching the video unfold, I was shocked, to say the least. The chef starts by boiling—yes boiling—the beef in a huge pot of plain water. I watched in stupefied, tragic awe as the words of Chef from Apocalypse Now replayed themselves in my head. "A hundred yards of prime rib. Magnificent, magnifique... Boiling it... man, it was turning grey..." This couldn't possibly be the start to the fantastic sandwich I'd eaten just a few days before.
The next step was almost as shocking as the first: the boiled meat was taken straight out of the cauldron and placed on a tray to cool, outside of its cooking liquid. Everyone knows you have to cool braised meat in its cooking liquid, right? I braced myself for what was coming next.
Typical gravy starts with a roux—flour cooked down in butter, which acts as a thickener. Rather than making a roux, however, all he did was whisk together flour, black pepper, garlic powder (not even fresh garlic!), and a few glugs of Gravy Master browning sauce, then pour that directly into the water the beef had been boiled in. The flour wasn't even cooked! Not a single vegetable! No stock! If Escoffier could see what's going on in that kitchen, he'd wouldn't just spin in his grave—he'd pack right up and move on out.
After all of this, the chilled meat is sliced, arranged on a tray, doused with the "gravy," then covered and put back into an oven until completely tender. The coup de grace is when the chef finally assembles the sandwich and places it in the oven to toast—lettuce, tomato, and all.
So the question is, of course, how does such obviously flawed basic technique produce a sandwich so darn delicious?
In order to answer that question, I decided to make two complete sandwiches side by side. The first, I'd make using Tracey's original method, boiled beef, raw flour roux, and all. The second, I'd use every ounce of my classical French training to optimize flavor at every step of the way. After that, I'd bring both sandwiches to Serious Eats World Headquarters and pit them head to head in a completely blind tasting to see whether or not fancy French technique is really all it's cracked up to be.
Step One: Cooking the Beef
Every recipe starts with the right cut of meat. At Tracey's, they use round. With braised meat, tradition tells us that both fat and connective tissue are essential to a savory finished texture. As meat cooks in a moist environment at a low temperature, the connective tissue, primarily made up of the protein collagen slowly converts into gelatin.
This is essential, because cooking also transforms meat in another important way: it drives moisture out—even if you cook it in a completely moist environment. The amount of juices a piece of meat loses is directly related to the final internal temperature of the meat, regardless of whether the meat is roasted, boiled, or barbecued. The idea behind braising is that with enough of that rich, unctuous gelatin lubricating the muscle fibers, even a piece of meat that's had much of its moisture driven out will still taste relatively moist.
The chunk of meat on the right is an eye of round. It's got very little fat, and very little connective tissue. On the left is a top round, which has far better marbling (the striations and spots of fat within the muscle)—a sure sign that it'll remain moister during cooking, and a much better choice than the eye of round. I decided that in order to give both techniques a fair shake, I'd have to start with identical pieces of meat. So I divided one large top round into two halves.
Step Two: Don't Fear the Sear
The Original: Unseared, dropped immediately into boiling water.
My Version: Seared until deep brown.
By now, anyone who follows the Food Lab should know that searing meat does not "lock in juices". It does, however, provide browning, a process which adds complexity and depth of flavor to your roast. So for my version, I decided to sear my top round on all sides in a Dutch oven before adding any liquid at all.
Speaking of liquid, my next change was to ditch the flavorless water used in the original recipe, instead using chicken stock, which I further bolstered by adding a mirepoix of carrots, celery, and onion. To maximize the well-browned flavors of the meat, I first sauteed the vegetables in the fat left behind in the same Dutch oven before deglazing with the stock. A few peppercorns, sprigs of thyme, and bay leaves rounded out my flavor profile. After building my braising liquid, I put the beef back in, placed a lid on the pot and set it in a 200°F oven to cook.
The Original: Plain, unseasoned water.
My Version: Caramelized vegetables, chicken stock, aromatics.
Ovens, by the way, are the ideal cooking method for braised dishes like stews or pot roasts. A stovetop maintains a constant-energy-output, meaning that the way various foods cook depend greatly on their volume. A pot of stew that's barely simmering at the start of cooking over medium-low heat might be at a rapid boil towards the end of cooking once some of the liquid has evaporated off and the volume is decreased. An oven, on the other hand, maintains a constant temperature, meaning that no matter how much or how little food there is in it, the temperature of that food remains the same. On top of that, an oven heats gently from all sides, while a burner focusses the heat on the bottom of the pot. Move all your braises to the oven, and you'll get better results—guaranteed.
I smelled the heavenly aromas drifting out of the pot and watched with dismay as the boiled version wanly floated around looking, well, boiled.
Step Three: Be Cool
The next step in the process is cooling the meat. The problem with braised meat is that while hot, it's so tender that slicing it is a nearly impossible task—it shreds and falls apart even with the sharpest knife and the gentlest touch. The best way to slice braised meat is to allow it to cool completely before slicing, then reheat it with some of its cooking liquid.
The boiled beef I treated just as directed, leaving it out on a sheet tray to cool completely in the open air. My own beef, on the other hand, I tested in two different ways. The first piece of meat I cooled in the air, while the second I cooled in a bowl covered in its braising liquid. Here are the results:
As you can see, the meat cooled in the liquid ended up with a good 3% more moisture than the one cooled in the air. This is because cooler meat can actually hold moisture more easily than hot meat. As the meat cools in the liquid, some of that liquid is reabsorbed. Tasting them side by side, there was no doubt that the meat cooled in liquid was significantly moister, especially around the very edges.
The Original: Cooled in the open air.
My Version: Cooled in its own braising liquid.
Step Four: Any Way You Slice It
Here's where another key difference between the cooking methods reveled itself. The boiled beef, which stayed at a vigorous simmer on the stovetop throughout its cooking process was fairly stiff with sliced—the slices held their shape and remained disk-like. The slow-cooked beef, on the other hand, had tender slices that curved away from the meat as I cut them. The hotter you braise beef, the more moisture is driven from it as it cooks, despite the fact that it's cooked in a moist environment. It's a difference that translated into greater tenderness in the mouth.
The Original: Stiff slices.
My Version: Tender slices.
Step Five: Good Gravy!
The original gravy is made with an uncooked roux featuring garlic powder and black pepper. For my version, I instead decided to make a classic roux using butter and flour slowly cooked down until dark brown and nutty in aroma. To this I added real minced garlic and some freshly cracked black pepper, then slowly added back the strained cooking liquid, then reduced it until it was a thick, gravy-like consistency. Texture-wise, it was smoother and a little thinner than the uncooked-roux-based gravy, and the aroma was decidedly more complex.
I made sure to add back all of the shredded beef slices that ended up on my cutting board after slicing the beef to their respective gravies. I fanned the slices out in identical baking dishes, poured on their gravies, and threw them back into the oven to reheat.
The Original: Uncooked flour and oil-based roux, garlic powder, preground black pepper.
My Version: Cooked butter and flour roux, real garlic, fresh black pepper.
Step Six: Service
After heating, the only difference I made in the assembly of the sandwich was to "dress" the boiled beef version before popping the whole thing in the oven to crisp up (I used soft "French" bread from my neighborhood supermarket). My own version, I crisped up the bread and beef together before adding the vegetables after it came out. For some reason, baked shredded lettuce just doesn't appeal to me.
With both sandwiches hot and ready, all that remained was to taste them and see whether or not all of these tweaks would actually result in a decisively better end product.
It would have been truly fantastic if the tweaked version failed—in fact, I was secretly hoping that it would. In a similar way to how I consistently hope that the hometown hero defeats Bobby Flay in his Throwdown, something just feels right about the simple, no-fuss, mom&pop destroying the fancy-pants, trained and pedigreed version. But it wasn't to be.
While both sandwiches were deemed to be outstandingly delicious, the tweaked version was picked universally as being more juicy, more tender, and more complex than the original. Of course, both were hastily downed nearly instantly (while Dumpling looked on with sad eyes and a smooshed face). It was a victory, I suppose, but a bittersweet one. Why had that original sandwich tasted so delicious to me, when clearly it wasn't as perfect as it could be?
I think the answer all comes down to the fact that when it comes to food, "perfection" is as much about context as it is about technique. To be honest, if Tracey's were to change their sandwich and start serving this tweaked-out version, I probably wouldn't be as happy with it. There's something about sitting at the hightop bar table with the doors wide open and the Saints game playing in the background that begs for the simpler flavors of Gravy Master and garlic powder, just as there are times when nothing tastes better than a cheap frozen pre-made dumpling, bowl of neon-orange mac & cheez, or even a fast-food hamburger.
In the end, what this testing really showed was that yes, better technique will yield what in a vacuum can be considered to be better end results, but more importantly, that there is a dimension to food beyond flavor. It is a dimension as vast as space and as timeless as infinity. It is the middle ground between light and shadow, between science and superstition, and it lies between the pit of man's fears and the summit of his knowledge... No wait a minute. That's the twilight zone. Never mind.
What I mean to say is, food tastes good, and the thing that makes it taste good isn't necessarily just that it tastes good.
No, still confusing. Let's try that one more time: The exact time, place, company, occasion, weather, climate, mood—the terroir of a meal, if you will—can have just as much of an impact on your enjoyment of the meal, and the way you perceive the flavor of the food itself as the cooking method, ingredients, or technique. This is a good thing. It's what makes eating together such a richly rewarding experience.
Here's to Tracey's: please keep doing what you are doing.