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Poor Boy Riches

At Original New Orleans Po-Boys, the treasures are Southern-fried

You can't always get what you want, though. One afternoon around 4 p.m., I was met with the news that the assembly line was out of poor boy rolls. We could have the interior ingredients on wheat or white bread if we liked, but for an afternoon, Original New Orleans was a poor boy joint with no poor boys. On another day, it was oysters that were out of stock. And on my last visit, the menu's prime comfort offering -- the Coke float -- joined the list of MIAs. No ice cream on Saturday, I was told. Make a note of it.

But as necessary as a good greasy sandwich and a Coke float can be on any particular day, it's not the food so much as the place itself that makes Original New Orleans Po-Boys a regular choice for everyone from suit-and-tied downtown businessmen to blue-smocked nurses to muddy day laborers. Inside the eating area -- a square space with "lunch room" written all over it -- vinyl booths hug the walls and miniature table-and-stool setups dot the floor. An impressive array of Coca-Cola memorabilia -- glass display cases filled with collectible bottles, vintage advertisements, mirrors, beach towels and lapel pins -- lines the walls. An employee started the collection from scratch four years ago, and at this point, it's so overwhelming that the sign out front advertises "Welcome to Coca-Cola, Texas." Signs indicate non-smoking areas, but tin tabletop ashtrays seem to be distributed at random. There's a vase of fresh carnations on every table, and there's always someone mopping up one part of the floor or another.

At Original New Orleans Po-Boys, people don't do lunch, they eat it. There's a big difference. You'd best try elsewhere for sophistication. You go to Original New Orleans Po-Boys to get fed.

All of which is terribly comforting somehow. Shielded from the street and awash in Coke kitsch, Original New Orleans takes on the feel of a haven, a sort of muffuletta Marfreless where a miserly glutton can sidle up to a fully loaded plastic tray and get cozy with his or her vice. But unlike Marfreless, where the waitresses turn a jaundiced eye to indulgence, the women operating the cash register at Original New Orleans serve with a knowing wink and nod. Example: one of my lunchtime companions traversed the cafeteria line collecting a five-ounce hamburger steak plate, butter-fried potatoes, butter-fried bread and fries before ending up at the register and asking for Diet Coke in his Coke float.

She served him what he asked for. But not before she'd laughed at him.
Original New Orleans Po-Boys, 3902 Main, 524-5778.

Original New Orleans Po-Boys: Pork chop plate, $4.95; chicken fried steak poor boy, $3.50; Number 1 special on a bun, $1.30.

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