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Folk Art on Bread

Yes, we visited that Original New Orleans Po' Boy

I am puzzled and vaguely insulted -- a lowbrow variant? Of a poor boy? The sandwich got its name during a streetcar strike in New Orleans in 1929, according to Louisiana food historians. The city sympathized with the strikers, and the Martin Brothers restaurant offered to feed those "po' boys" for cheap. Any striker who showed up at the eatery's back door at closing time could get a meal for a nickel -- essentially a sandwich of leftover French bread filled with "debris" (meat trimmings) or potatoes, then topped with gravy. Thus the "po' boy" sandwich was born. It was an instant hit, and the Depression years that followed made it an icon. The Martin Brothers restaurant would ultimately commission a bakery to make the skinny flutes that are now the traditional poor boy bread.

Eventually, in Catholic-dominated New Orleans, meatless poor boys had to be invented for Friday meals and Lent. So cheap varieties of seafood, especially fried oysters, became a popular stuffing.

Given its history, the idea of a highbrow poor boy is a little ludicrous. The other day, I asked Tyer what he was thinking when he wrote the review. I particularly wondered why he didn't mention the oyster poor boy. He said he didn't sample the sandwich because he doesn't like oysters. He also said he was just filling in as a restaurant writer and felt the need to apologize for his plebian tastes. Like many people, he assumed that food critics generally focus on fancy restaurants. I explained my own philosophy to him.

Manager Sarah Brooks's carefully prepared oyster poor boy is one of those rare sandwiches of which every bite tastes better than the last.
Troy Fields
Manager Sarah Brooks's carefully prepared oyster poor boy is one of those rare sandwiches of which every bite tastes better than the last.

Location Info

Map

Original New Orleans PO Boy

3902 Main St.
Houston, TX 77002-9615

Category: Restaurant >

Region: Downtown/ Midtown

Details

Hours: Monday through Friday, 5 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.; Saturday, 5 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. (713)524-5778

Oyster poor boy: $4.75
Shrimp poor boy: $4.75
Cheeseburger poor boy: $2.25

3902 Main Street

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A couple of weeks ago I went to hear the Houston Symphony perform a fascinating program of Beethoven works, including the Mass in C Major. A couple of weeks before that, I went to Miss Ann's Playpen in the Third Ward for its Monday-night blues jam. I had a great time at both places, and I don't see anything inconsistent about that.

In music, as in food, there is high art and there is folk art. Like many people, I enjoy both. But the fact is, in Texas, we are better known for the latter. We are far more famous for the blues than for classical music. Likewise, we are better known for barbecue than fine dining. You don't read much about the symphony or the opera in the Houston Press music section. So why should the cafe section be all about haute cuisine?

When food writers and chefs from New York, California and Europe visit Houston, they want me to take them to smoky meat markets for brisket or Tex-Mex temples for enchiladas or soul food joints for Southern breakfasts. It's not that we're bereft of brilliant chefs and great restaurants. We have plenty, but so does every other city. Chefs come and go, but classic peasant dishes are forever.

And likewise, on my first visit to France, I was much more interested in sampling cassoulet, pot-au-feu, bouillabaisse and choucroute than I was in eating at trendy restaurants. The French understand this point of view, and they set an excellent example by respecting both ends of the food spectrum.

You can't compare a gritty poor boy shop to the fanciest restaurant in town. But you can judge both on how well they accomplish what they set out to do. And with its rendition of the folk-art form known as the oyster poor boy, the humble dive called Original New Orleans Po' Boy approaches greatness.

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