In a country where sandwich varieties are almost comically vast (seriously, just take a look at 'em all), the po' boy remains a unique New Orleans specialty. You'll find them served on almost every street corner, not to mention gas stations and fancy restaurants alike. But no matter where you're picking up a po' boy, there's one characteristic that truly sets them apart: the quality of the bread, crackly-crisp on the outside, with a tender, almost feathery-light interior.
The light loaf is traditionally served untoasted, packed with fried seafood or gravy-soaked meat, and "dressed"—for the uninitiated, that means shredded iceberg lettuce, sliced tomato, mayonnaise, and pickles. So when we set out to find the best the city has to offer, we were on the lookout for a few key traits. First and foremost was, of course, that hallmark bread. But fresh seafood, fried to a golden crisp, was a close second, along with tender, well-seasoned meat. And then there's gravy, served "debris"-style—most commonly with beef, braised or boiled into fine shreds. We wanted a rich, meaty gravy, poured in moderation, and a crisp, flavorful dressing that doesn't overwhelm the other components.
Of course, classic po' boys are just the tip of the iceberg. The city is rife with inventive new creations, and our primary criterion was, at the end of the day, a great sandwich that, traditional or not, captured the spirit of the original.
But what of this original? The po' boy itself dates back in 1929, when brothers Bennie and Clovis Martin began providing free sandwiches from their Martin Brothers Coffee Stand and Restaurant to the city's striking streetcar operators. They referred to the striking men as "poor boys," and filled the bread with combinations like beef gravy and french fries, or mayo, lettuce, and tomato—basically whatever scraps were around.
They worked with local baker John Gendusa to develop a tapered, evenly sized 40" loaf. Great-grandson Jason Gendusa explains that, for economy's sake, the loaf could be cut and served in as many as three equal portions—an option that, unsurprisingly, only boosted the popularity of the po' boy during the Great Depression, when 15 cents would buy a 20-inch sandwich; today, a typical 10-inch is more than filling.
With a sandwich so storied and prolific, finding the best New Orleans has to offer can be an exhausting enterprise. Here are the ones we'll return to time and again.
The Fried Shrimp Po' Boy From Parkway Bakery and Tavern
Forced to close its doors for a decade, the historic Parkway Bakery and Tavern in Mid-City triumphantly re-opened in 2003, under the new ownership of neighbor Jay Nix, who restored the property (twice, due to flooding from Hurricane Katrina). Parkway's pale green walls and general vibe nonetheless remain a window into the past—it was one of the first purveyors of po' boys back in 1929, when they became popular with workers at the nearby American Can Company.
These days, you'll find long loaves of fresh bread stacked beside the kitchen to serve the local crowds that know enough to show up early. Justin Kennedy is at the kitchen's helm, where he's become renowned for creating one of the most extensive menus of traditional po' boys in the city.
Sure enough, the Fried Shrimp Po' Boy ($11.65) features some of the best shrimp in town. And with untoasted bread and a classic dressing, it's a purist's quintessential po' boy. Coated in a lightly seasoned batter and fried to a crisp golden-brown, the shrimp are served on an overstuffed, generously dressed Leidenheimer loaf. It's the most widely used po' boy bread in the city, easily recognized by the signature fissures in its crust. The bread itself comes slightly flattened and flaky; the crust is firm but light, offering little resistance to each bite. It's not exactly an eat-and-walk type of sandwich, though. You'll want napkins and a plate, since enough of the tender shrimp fall out to make an extra meal.
The Dark & Stormy From Killer PoBoys
You'll find pop-up restaurant Killer PoBoys at the back of the perennially crowded French Quarter bar, Erin Rose. It's a dark, warm, unpretentious Irish pub, at times filled with tourists but no less perfect a spot to while away an afternoon. Owners Cam Boudreaux and April Bellow operate the tiny kitchen, where they manage to crank out a short but popular menu of four po' boys at an impressively high volume.
The must-order sandwich is The Dark & Stormy ($11), a roast pork belly po' boy coated in a ginger-maple-rum glaze. Topped with a creamy aioli and crisp lime slaw, it captures a rich, tangy contrast of sweet and savory, flavorful but never heavy-handed. And while the lightly toasted Dong Phuong bread has a tighter crumb than a traditional loaf, it stands up admirably to the tender meat and punchy dressing.
The Cochon De Lait From Katie's
The traditionally rural Acadian dish of roasted suckling pig known as cochon de lait has become a big part of the po' boy scene since Walker's Barbecue introduced it at the city's annual Jazz Fest a few years back. While Walker's version is excellent, I was blown away by the Cochon de Lait Po' Boy ($10.95) at Katie's Restaurant and Bar, a festive Mid-City restaurant where chef/owner Scot Craig is hands-on at the helm.
Here, shreds of tender pork are piled on buttered, lightly toasted Gendusa bread, with a light coleslaw. The pork has a pleasant, sneaky heat, and tastes as though it could've been braised in milk, but the French reference to lait (milk) actually refers to a suckling pig.
But it's the fresh, superior bread that sends this sandwich over the top, with a firm but yielding golden crust and soft interior. It's too bad you can't get Gendusa in local supermarkets—it's the lightest po' boy bread that I've found; the small to medium crumb is delicate, pillowy, and faintly sweet. I like to think of it as the angel food cake of the bread world. Not shocking considering that it comes from the bakery that invented the po' boy loaf. Wherever you find Gendusa, an equally excellent po' boy is almost sure to follow.
The Vietnamese Four Meat Combo Po' Boy From Mr. Bubbles Sandwich House
The bánh mì has been assimilated into New Orleans culture as a "Vietnamese po' boy." And in many ways, it's fitting that a French Colonial sandwich from Vietnam would find a home in New Orleans—at less than half of the cost of a traditional po' boy, each bánh mì at Mr. Bubbles Sandwich House honors the spirit of the original New Orleans rendition.
Take, for instance, Chef Nam Vo's Bánh Mì Thap Cam ($3.99) with added sriracha mayo. Vo's bright, contemporary-looking West Bank shop serves a combination of roasted sweet pork, Vietnamese ham, crushed pork meatballs, pork liver pâté, butter aioli, chili paste, cucumber, pickled carrots, raw onions, cilantro, jalapeños, and soy sauce, all piled onto a loaf of Dong Phuong bread.
The sweet carrots blend seamlessly with the spicy meats, and the sliced jalapeños deliver some heavy heat. The roasted pork boasts a thin, red smoke ring with a milder peppery spice, and the locally made ham has a slick, gyro-like tenderness. The pâté and crushed meatball bring a smoothness to an already tender sandwich, and the sriracha mayo adds a familiar po' boy flavor.
Grilled Shrimp Po' Boy From Guy's Po' Boys
Guy's Po' Boys, a small uptown shop with a hand-painted sign, has a huge local following. And with good reason—owner Marvin Matherne is sociable and boisterous in the open kitchen, the kind of man who loves plying his craft. While the lines at Guy's can be long, and the hours are short, the Grilled Shrimp Po' Boy ($13.95) stands alongside Parkway's as one of the best in the city.
Matherne's rendition is masterful in its simplicity—the sandwich is little more than lightly seasoned, buttery griddle-cooked shrimp, served with a perfect balance of crisp dressing and top-notch produce. And the man knows how to build a sandwich right—every bite of this 11-inch sandwich has an equal amount of every ingredient. Somehow the Leidenheimer loaf seems better here than anywhere else.
The Roast Beef Po' Boy From The Munch Factory
The roots of roast beef po' boys trace back to the gravy used in the Martin brothers' original creations. Today, the meat is typically served debris-style, laden with a messily addictive gravy. Of course, variations abound—a few versions incorporate sliced meat, while others display thicker shreds that are a hybrid of both traditions. Sadly, there are plenty of lackluster, under-seasoned, and tough examples out there, and finding one worth recommending to first-timers was something of a challenge.
Happily, the Roast Beef Po' Boy ($13) at The Munch Factory in Gentilly delivered on all fronts. The meat here is finely shredded, and the naturally rich combination of gravy and mayonnaise—love it or hate it, it's essential here—is blended into a lava-like sauce that spills out onto your plate. The bread is also at its peak, the bottom soaking up that bold gravy like a delicious sponge.
The Fried Oyster Po' Boy From Bevi Seafood Co.
Enter Bevi Seafood Co, a bright crawfish-red, old-school Metairie seafood market. Clean and casual, with a full bar, the restaurant is serving up back-to-basics local seafood dishes. Chef and owner Justin Lebanc is toasting the freshest Leidenheimer to order for his po' boys, and cooking seafood with the focus of a trained chef.
Case in point: his Fried Oyster Po' Boy ($11.99), a formidable mix of tender oysters and toasted, sesame-studded bread. The lettuce is green leaf, and the tomatoes are vine-ripened to a vibrant red. And then there's the oysters, fried just enough to get the breading golden and crisp while leaving the meaty bivalves soft, tender, and nearly raw. The seeded, toasted bun and fancy lettuce aren't exactly traditional, but in this case they're an agreeable step-up for Leblanc's best-of-breed po' boy.
The Peacemaker From Bevi Seafood Co.
That's right, another hit from Bevi. For the oyster-averse, or the surf-and-turf-inclined, there are few better options than The Peacemaker ($10.99), a combination of scantily battered fried shrimp, swiss cheese, and roast beef gravy, studded with tiny bits of debris. Peacemaker po' boys can be found in other spots, and every one seems to differ in some way. Many have an oyster and shrimp combination, and some involve bacon and cheese. One popular story is that this is what someone would bring home to their spouse in the evening to "make peace." Regardless, they're often loaded with an unmanageable volume of meat and gravy. Bevi's version is uniquely restrained, with just enough gravy to deliver a meaty contrast to the tender shrimp.
The Kobe Beef Burger From Antoine's Hermes Bar
Hamburger po' boys are also plentiful in New Orleans, and I don't think that I've ever met one that I didn't like. But I just keep returning to the Kobe Beef Cheeseburger Po' Boy ($12) at Antoine's Hermes Bar in the French Quarter. Tender meat, pan-seared to a perfect medium-rare, is dressed with mayo, lettuce, and fresh tomatoes, along with a melted three-cheese blend (Cheddar, American, and one top-secret cheese).
At first glance, it may not sound so different from your average—if decadent—cheeseburger. But throw it on some crisp Gendusa bread with a side of marchand de vin (think a saucy dip of wine, butter, shallots, and beef stock), and you've got yourself one helluva burger po' boy. Not to mention a perfect example of how forgotten, old-school French sauces are worth remembering.
The Soft Shell Crab Po' Boy From Parasol's
Parasol's Bar & Restaurant has been a New Orleans establishment since the early '50s, and current proprietor Thea Hogan has maintained its old-world Irish Channel character. The dining area is separate from a bar in front, and the worn paneled walls—the pale green of another era—are hung with memorabilia.
It's also the prime location for Soft-Shell Crab Po' Boys ($14), a seasonal dish that's well worth waiting for (you may want to call ahead to ensure that they're stocked). The sweet, juicy blue crab is fried until crisp in a seasoned corn-flour breading and served beneath a pink mayonnaise and smoky, paprika-based remoulade. Here, the Leidenheimer loaf is toasted with garlic and butter, and loaded up with shredded lettuce and ripe red tomatoes. It's tempting to eat the crab and then the sandwich, and frankly, it's large and delicious enough to do exactly that.