Monday, October 24, 2011

My recent Po Boy Marathon in New Orleans, Louisiana

While the title of my blog confirms my respect for baked goods, I have a reverence for baking and cooking alike.  I also have a deep respect for the construction of a good sandwich, so much so that I will travel to different destinations to taste the best local ingredients stuffed between two slices of bread.  My recent travels to New Orleans provided the perfect opportunity to indulge in great sandwiches, more specifically great po boys. When you travel to New Orleans, eating local food is as valid an exploration of the city's history as stepping inside a museum: and po boys are the perfect example of this.   Some say the the legendary po boy sandwich originated during the New Orleans streetcar strike of the late 1920's, when restauranteurs Bennie & Clovis Martin fed strikers their hearty sandwiches as an act of support.  For me, an independent, thoughtfully executed sandwich shop is more than a place to get a no-frills, hearty lunch. These shops tell the stories of a city's food traditions, treasured recipes, and community.  

Any sandwich lover in any American city has their favorite hometown sandwich shop.  For my family, it's Giuliano's in Gardena, maker of Italian deli sandwiches that were as much a part of my California childhood as days spent boogie boarding in the Pacific Ocean.  To this day, we still nibble on their sandwiches with satisfaction-- though, only after dunking the edge of our bread in their signature oil and vinegar mixture so each bite is transformed into a juicy explosion of dressing and meat and spices.  This shop became a part of my family's history when my grandpa's contracting business led him to create the woodworking of the original Guiliano's location-- and my family has enjoyed their sandwiches ever since.  

New Orleans is a city where sandwich history is especially honored, local mom and pop businesses are treasured culinary gems, and down-to-earth food and service will fill you up to the brim.  But especially since Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the kitchens that re-opened and continue to cook up New Orleans cuisine are a symbol of the city's resilience.  According to the book Gumbo Tales by Sara Roahen, New Orleans locals "continue to pitch in elbow grease to help their favorite food businesses reopen."  

This city honors its local recipes and food traditions as an essential part of its cultural landscape, arguably more so than any American city.  Our visit to the Southern Museum of Food and Beverage highlighted this reverence for food culture throughout its exhibits.  A quote featured by Judy Walker, Food Editor of local paper Times Picayune and author of Cooking up a Storm, examined the communal recipe recovery project initiated after Hurricane Katrina: "Restoring recipes after so many were lost in the floodwaters following Katrina was an educational process for me.   I came to wonder if this project would have been necessary anywhere else in the United States.  If 80 percent of another major American city was destroyed, would there have been a need to re-locate the recipes that the citizens held dear?  I tend to think not."  And if you need more evidence, take a look at these entertaining posters (photographed in the Southern Museum of Food and Beverage.)   The posters advertise the Po Boy Preservation Festival, dedicated to the sandwich born in New Orleans. 

So I bet you're wondering: where do you go to eat a po boy in the city that champions the sandwich as a historical artifact?  

Since this was our first trip to New Orleans, we had a lot of ground to cover and only three meals a day.   Among other dishes we set out to conquer, a po boy marathon commenced.  It was a whirlwhind of carbohydrates, meat, and seafood, one that still makes me salivate as I recall the adventure.  Let it be known that we said goodbye to our California ways for the duration of our trip: there would be no sushi bars, no salads adorned with avocado, no salmon tacos, no artichokes.  We would certainly not disgrace our palates with any meal we might have access to at home. A slice of pizza or a quesadilla?  These were poison to our cause.  Low-carb, low-fat, vegetarian, we abandoned each category with zeal!  We would eat only local decadence for a week and a half, washing down each meal with local cocktail specialties and beers in equal measure. 

Our first two stops were suggested to us through Gumbo Tales, which is a must-read for anyone desiring an eating tour of the city-- particularly if you're the type of person who appreciates the small business owners, restauranteurs, and chefs within communities near and far.  I suggest finishing her book before you go so your taste buds are fully prepared to appreciate (and likely fall in love with) the gems of the New Orleans food scene.  At her suggestion, we started off the trip at Liuzza's by the Track in pursuit of the BBQ shrimp po boy that in her opinion, would "change our life."  She even goes so far as to draw the comparison between New Orleans residents taking visitors to Liuzza's just as New York dwellers take their out-of-town guests to the Statue of Liberty.  (She clearly appreciates a good po boy.)

It's important to note that BBQ shrimp in New Orleans takes on a style all it's own, and at Liuzza's this special version of BBQ shrimp is their signature dish.  Imagine a mountain of shrimp, stuffed into a French bread pistolette, and you can start to picture the feast at Liuzza's (the sandwich made even more famous when John Goodman devoured an order on HBO's Treme.)  

My mom and I ordered one bbq shrimp po boy, and one oyster po boy, splitting them in half so we could each try each version.  For the record, the perfect travel partner is the one you can share po boy halves with, thus you can take full advantage of the food varieties at your fingertips.  Similar to most of our meals in New Orleans, we enjoyed this one washed down by goblet-sized Abita beers.   

We also shared a bowl of gumbo at Liuzza's, just for good measure.  The menu warns you to taste before you season this bowl, filled with "a savory New Orleans standard stock with sausage, chicken, and a cornucopia of seasonings." In case you're in doubt, the menu will tell you that Liuzza's sautees fresh shrimp "right before we send it to your taste buds."  We were grateful for the love and care put into this meal, and for their attention to our experience. Being at Liuzza's by the Track felt immediately like being a part of the neighborhood. We ran into friendly folks whose regular status afforded them the honor of having their names "practically carved into the bar stools." Rather than treat us like tourists, they welcomed us as one of their own and gave us advice on the best local food we should eat next.  When I went outside for the food papperazi stage of the meal, a man who I believe was the owner spotted me taking exterior shots of the restaurant.  

"Are you looking to buy the place or are you just hoping to remember a good meal?"  
"The second one, " I said, with a smile.  "But you never know."  Whether he was the owner or  just another local with a sense of humor about life, we may never know.

After eating at Liuzza's by the Track, we were in the mood for a ferry ride and hopped across to Algiers, a historic neighborhood that was spared from Katrina's floodwaters.  A pleasant walk led us to take in the quaint sites of this area: charming houses, flower gardens, outdoor ceiling fans on balconies-- this felt like a good place to call home. 


On our way back to the ferry, we came across a pub, and ever the curious beer-drinker I stopped inside to see what was on tap.  After explaining to the bartender that we were on our way to catch the ferry and just wanted to take a look inside, she offered that we could take a to-go cup.  It's easy to forget the to-go cup courtesy of the Big Easy when you're a couple of Californians recently unchained from the strict public consumption laws of your home state.  And if not before, it was then that we felt the freedom of life in Louisiana: the most European of American cities, indeed.

After our ferry beer journey, we went on to have more po boy adventures throughout our trip.  Out of any place we went to, the next po boy establishment on the marathon tour, Domilise's, really went out of their way to condone my sandwich seeking nerdery.  "Do you want to get a shot from behind the counter?" my sandwich creator asked, as I timidly snapped photos of my po-boy in progress.  

He even went so far as to relocate bags of Leidenheimer's bread (loaves famous for their airy po boy quality) that were blocking my shot of the Domilise's menu.  "Everyone gets their sandwich dressed with catsup," he guided us, knowing that we were out-of-towners yet in pursuit of the local's experience.  And just when I thought our warm welcome couldn't get any warmer, they offered us the extra oysters from the freshly fried batch, the surplus that couldn't quite fit into our po-boy "There's some extra oysters.  Would you like them?"  

Since we're not the kind of people who say no to questions like that, an entire plate of oysters was plopped down next to us.  

From the moment I stepped foot in Domilise's, I felt so at home-- the only problem was that I wasn't.  So while I left with a happy and full belly, I also left feeling sorry I couldn't patronize their business more frequently.  Luckily, I can show my support over here on the West Coast by wearing my Domilise's t-shirt, a definite favorite souvenir of the trip (I wholeheartedly confess, I'm also hoping I might meet some po boy loving kindred spirits by sporting this tee.  Any Louisiana transplants out here on the West Coast? Because I've got a fryer and I know how to use it!)  

Hurricane season brought some stormy weather to our po boy marathon, but we persisted.  During some heavier rains, we hung around the French Quarter, took in some museum visits, and landed at Stanley's, home of a soft-shell crab po boy that I still see in my dreams.  We've got great food in California, we sure do-- but we don't have this:  

Unless Hollywood starts up a soft-shell crab fad diet, I fear Los Angeles will never see the likes of such a beautiful boy.  Seeking shelter from the rain, we devoured this beast of a cornmeal-crusted soft-shell crab with cole slaw, spicy remoulade, and creole cocktail sauces on toasted french bread.  There may have been some french fries ordered on the side, but we'll never tell.  Inside Stanley's, we spied on visitors braving the rain, sporting Bud Light ponchos and contemplating their next move: I imagine they were trying to figure out whether drinking a giant frozen daiquiri in the rain was the right decision. 

We also landed at Johnny's in the French Quarter, a no-nonsense little shop that served up po boys and lunch specials (and whose shrimp and grits is only served at breakfast, which I regrettably missed out on.)  

While we devoured po boys here, I daydreamed about being a local and stopping for my morning coffee and shrimp and grits.  Does anything sound better than waking up to local seafood at your fingertips for three meals a day and walking down the street to the beat of live jazz on your way to work?  No doubt there is a Los Angeles food truck somewhere with shrimp and grits, but there's no tuba in your face reminding you to love your life and your city.  I love Los Angeles, but New Orleans has us beat in this way: we can't compete-- their city moves to a beat.

And now, some historical facts for you:  In the 1930's, a 20-inch half-loaf po boy sandwich cost 15 cents.  In 2011, po boys might cost anywhere from $6 to $15.  Perhaps a "po boy" no more according to its price-- but every bit as delicious.  I strongly encourage you to get to New Orleans now and embark on your own po boy marathon-- whether in the name of history, or just in the name of a good sandwich, you owe it to yourself.

Thank you:
Southern Museum of Food and Beverage
Author of Gumbo Tales, Sara Roahen, Source:
And...All the lovely folks who made me po boys throughout my travels!

Liuzza's by the Track.  
1518 N. Lopez
New Orleans, LA 70119
5240 Annunciation St
New Orleans LA
**Note: Domilise's is right down the street from legendary Hansen's Sno-Bliz, which you MUST make a priority during your New Orleans visit.  And since Hansen's is getting its own separate blog post, that's all I can say for now.  I just wouldn't want you to miss this gem if you hop on a flight to New Orleans tomorrow.
547 St Ann Street
New Orleans, LA
511 St. Louis Street
New Orleans, LA