How to Make the Best Seafood Po' Boys

Overhead shot of fish, shrimp, and oyster po' boys.

[Photographs: Vicky Wasik]

Po' boys are a New Orleans specialty that bear a passing resemblance to submarine (or hoagie if you're from Pennsylvania) sandwiches you can find on the East Coast. The commonly accepted origin story (which doesn't always translate to complete historical accuracy) of the po' boy goes like this: In 1929, New Orleans streetcar workers went on strike to protest the formation of a company-sponsored union. Brothers Bennie and Clovis Martin, who ran the Martin Brothers Coffee Stand and Restaurant, began handing out free sandwiches to the striking "poor boy" workers. This gesture of sandwich solidarity proved to be business-savvy; even when the Martin Brothers began selling po' boys for profit, their simple composition made them an affordable dining option during the Great Depression.

I'm Just a Po' Boy, Everybody Loves Me

Closeup of shrimp po' boy.

Served on oblong loaves of French bread that have a shattery crust and a tender, airy interior, po' boys are commonly filled with gravy-drenched roast beef or fried seafood. As with many other iconic regional sandwiches, like Philadelphia's roast pork or Puebla's cemita, any aficionado will tell you that a proper po' boy is all about the bread, which is closer to Vietnamese-style banh mi bread than a sub roll. Unfortunately, both Vietnamese baguettes and New Orleans–style French loaves are pretty hard to come by, so most of us have to make do. I had the best success mimicking po' boy bread by lightly toasting sub rolls to crisp up their soft crust, and then scooping out a good portion of their dense and doughy interior.

Shrimp, oysters, and fish in po' boy dredge.

With the bread squared away, it's time to talk fillings. Along with roast beef, fried seafood is the most common item to stuff in a po' boy. Shrimp, oysters, and fish are all popular options that are coated in a Creole-spiced flour and cornmeal dredge, and then deep-fried until golden brown. They then get piled high into rolls, and "dressed" with mayonnaise, shredded lettuce, sliced tomatoes, and pickles. It's a messy, delicious sandwich that combines the seafood simplicity of a New England–style fried clam roll, the bread of a banh mi, and the condiments of a great deli sandwich. Here's how to make them.

How to Make Fried Seafood Po' Boys

Dress for Success

Closeup of remoulade sauce.

Whenever I'm making sandwiches with a bunch of toppings, I like to get the garnish work out of the way at the beginning. Sandwich construction is all about assembly-line efficiency, and having your mise en place is essential for this. This is especially important for sandwiches with hot, fried fillings; you don't want perfectly crispy shrimp to turn to a cold, soggy mess while you're slicing tomatoes and shredding lettuce. Get those things done early, and set them aside. I like to refrigerate lettuce to keep it crisp, while leaving sliced tomatoes out at room temperature.

Closeup overhead shot of fried shrimp on a wire rack.

I then make a spicy mayonnaise-based sauce that I'm required by law to call a rémoulade, even though it is missing classic French rémoulade ingredients (capers and anchovies). Real talk: You don't have to follow a rémoulade recipe exactly to end up with a delicious sandwich spread. Combine fatty mayonnaise with spicy (hot sauce, cayenne, garlic, mustard, prepared horseradish), briny (minced pickle), savory (Worcestershire sauce), and acidic (lemon juice) ingredients, and I promise it will taste good.

Dredging Work

Dredging setup for po' boys.

A proper coating is critical for fried seafood. It needs to be light and crisp, and it shouldn't slough off when you bite into it. For seafood po' boys, the coating is a dredge made with flour and cornmeal that's spiced with Creole seasoning.

Whisking together dredge for po' boys.

I set up a traditional dredging station with two shallow baking dishes for dry and wet ingredients. For the wet mixture, I whisk together eggs with a small amount of the dry dredge to help create an even coating that won't slide off.

Process shots of dredging shrimp for po' boys.

Start by tossing your seafood of choice in the dredge to lightly coat it with the flour mixture. Dip it in the egg wash, and then dredge it one more time to fully coat.

Dredged shrimp on a wire rack.

For shrimp and fish, I gently press the dredge onto them to make sure they are evenly coated, transfer them to a wire rack, and then refrigerate for 15 minutes before frying. This time allows the starches in the dredge to hydrate, which results in better coating adhesion.

Adding oyster liquor to dredge mixture for po' boys.

Oysters are far more delicate, so pressing the dredge onto them is not a good idea. Follow the same dry-wet-dry procedure for dredging them, but just take a much more gentle approach. I like to add some of the oyster liquor to the egg mixture when dipping them. For the final coating, you can lightly toss them in the dredge and then go directly to frying. Oysters are more moist than shrimp and fish, so placing them on a wire rack before frying is a no-go—the coating will just stick to the rack and you will need to re-dredge them.

Yearning to Fry, But I Ain't Got Wings

Process shots of deep frying shrimp.

I carefully fry the seafood at 375°F (190°C), working in batches so as not to overcrowd the pot and drop the temperature of the oil too low. Make sure to keep an eye on your food while it fries; seafood can quickly become overcooked, and you want to get it out of the oil as soon as the dredge is browned.

Overhead shot of fried seafood on a wire rack.

Once the coating is golden brown, I transfer the seafood to a clean wire rack and immediately season it with salt. I prefer to rest fried foods on a rack instead of paper towels, so that they don't sit in oil. You can always dab them on paper towels right before serving.

Closeup of oyster po' boy with beer in background.

It's now time to build your po' boys. Slather the bread with rémoulade, pile on the lettuce, tomato, and pickles, and then top them off with your perfectly fried seafood. Dig in and get messy.