Ms. W removes one of the two fillets of fried catfish before she starts eating her poor boy. I almost choke on my overstuffed roast beef sub. "What are you doing?" I ask in a state of bewildered agitation, my mouth still full. We're at Zinnante's, a wacky Cajun-Italian deli famous for its sandwiches.
"It's too much fish," she says demurely. "Oh, I'm sorry, you need to try it that way, huh?" she says as she picks up the fish and reassembles the sandwich. The steaming hot fish in spicy cornmeal batter has been fried to a crispy deep brown. A bed of shredded lettuce and a long white bun hold it in place. The packing materials are perfectly seasoned with mayonnaise and hot sauce.
A recent trip to New Orleans with Ms. W included a visit to Guy's Po-Boys (5929 Magazine), which many Louisiana food writers recommend as one of the city's best poor boy shops. The catfish poor boy there was damn good. But in my opinion, Zinnante's version is even better.
To say that a little deli on Hillcroft is making better catfish poor boys than Guy's in New Orleans is high praise indeed. But it must be noted that Ms. W does not entirely agree. She does think that Zinnante's catfish poor boy tastes better -- but only after she's removed some of the fish.
Our disagreement over Zinnante's comes down to a fundamental difference in sandwich philosophies. I hate skimpy sandwiches. I'm always looking for something extra to spread, sprinkle or smear on mine. Ms. W, on the other hand, is one of those people who must discard part of her sandwich before eating it. She isn't happy unless she leaves off the top, takes out some of the fillings or scrapes off some mayo. So when it comes to Zinnante's overloaded sandwiches, we have different reactions: I love them. She loves to take them apart.
Founded by Peter Zinnante Sr. in 1972, Zinnante's Delicatessen is now being run by the second and third generations of the family. Pete Jr., his wife, Cezila, and grandson Pete III all take turns behind the register. Besides the sandwiches, the menu includes étouffées, gumbo, crawfish, crab and boudin plates, and a long list of pasta dishes. The food generally falls into the Louisiana-Italian category, a culinary tradition that's very familiar between here and New Orleans.
There are a few regional anomalies, though. The brisket and chicken-fried steak sandwiches are understandable -- this is Texas, after all. But what's that staple of New York Jewish delis, the sauerkraut-covered Reuben, doing on the menu? And what's up with the soft drinks? There's no Big Red, but there's Doctor Brown's cream soda from New York. And instead of Barq's, the national root beer of Louisiana, they've got IBC from St. Louis. Maybe the large Jewish community in Meyerland is responsible for some of these quirks.
The restaurant is open for dinner as well as lunch. The 2000-2001 Zagat Survey says that most people get Zinnante's food to go, because "seating is limited and décor nonexistent." I beg to differ.
The side wall of the restaurant is completely covered with family photos, posters, plaques from the Fort Bend County Fair Barbecue Cook-off, and an impressive collection of livestock show ribbons won by somebody's llamas. There's also a television set on a counter up front with aluminum foil squares hanging from its extended rabbit ears.
And while there may be only five tables, two of them are covered with assorted beer bottle caps artfully arranged in geometric patterns under a thick layer of clear acrylic. Another table has a yellowing Monopoly board and four hands of cards neatly fanned and frozen in artificial amber.
I'm not sure what you call this school of interior design exactly (Bottle Cap Beaux Arts? Rec Room Retro?), but I assure you it is quite popular in Houston.
The worst sandwich at Zinnante's is the regular poor boy. The menu says it's a ham, salami and cheese with "Z" original sauce. The sauce is mayo and pickle relish, and the sandwich tastes like a whole lot of mayonnaise surrounding a tiny bit of cheap lunch meat. Too bad the deli lets this one sandwich ruin its otherwise sterling reputation.
The best cold sandwich I had at Zinnante's was the Paisano. When I ordered it, Ms. Z asked me if I wanted a half or a whole. "Half is plenty," she said. I got a whole.
According to Mr. Z, the Paisano was inspired by the New Orleans muffuletta. Legend has it that Central Grocery on Decatur Street made the first muffuletta in 1906. It consists of a round, crusty piece of Italian bread that's stuffed with ham, salami, cheese and Central Grocery's own olive salad and then cut into quarters. The olive salad is sublime; I have some in my refrigerator at this very moment. The ingredients include chopped green olives, roasted red peppers, celery, garlic, cocktail onions, capers, oregano, parsley, red-wine vinegar, salt and pepper, and lots of olive oil.
Like Central Grocery's muffuletta, Zinnante's Paisano is served on a round roll and contains ham, cheese, salami and olive salad. But Zinnante's round bread is softer than the stiff rolls used in New Orleans, which is both good and bad -- bad if you like your bread crusty, but good if you're planning to eat the sandwich right away.
Eating a muffuletta at Central Grocery right after you buy it is a mistake. The bread is so hard that you can barely bite through it, and the pressure exerted by your jaw causes olive oil to gush out and run down your arm. In fact, experienced muffuletta eaters buy their sandwiches in advance so that the oil will have time to soak into the bread and soften it. My personal aging strategy calls for buying the sandwiches in the morning (Central Grocery opens at 8 a.m.) and placing them in a cooler. If I'm on the way home to Houston, I flip them over around Lake Charles so that the oil gets evenly distributed to both sides of the bread. By dinnertime, they're just about perfect. It's a lot of bother for a sandwich, but it's quite a sandwich.
Zinnante's Paisano may not be an exact imitation of a muffuletta, but it will never be faulted for skimpy ingredients. A monumental inch-thick layer of ham dominates the interior of the sandwich; the salami, provolone and olive salad serve as mere decorations. I cut mine in half and ate it for lunch again the next day. Pay attention to Ms. Z and get a half; a whole Paisano is a two-day sandwich.
Like the catfish poor boy, the other fried seafood poor boys at Zinnante's are outstanding. The crawfish poor boy was overflowing with crispy mudbugs. I also tried a sautéed shrimp poor boy, which was a bad idea for a sandwich to go. The shrimp are wonderfully seasoned, but they soak through the roll in minutes, turning the bread on the bottom to mush. Stick with the deep-fried shrimp if you're taking it with you.
Zinnante's roasts its own beef, and it looks nice and rare, although for some strange reason they put the roast beef sandwich I ordered into the microwave, which turned the meat gray. I'll have to remember to specify cold roast beef in the future.
The meatball and Italian sausage sandwiches are very good as well, but I discovered that there's a big difference between the East Coast and the Louisiana-Italian versions of these sandwiches. An Italian sausage sandwich in New England features Italian sausage split in half lengthwise and grilled with onions and green peppers -- no red sauce. And a meatball sandwich is made with huge meatballs sliced into several flat pieces, then covered with red sauce and cheese and baked.
In the Louisiana-Italian version, whole meatballs or a whole link of sausage is placed in the poor boy roll with lots of red gravy and cheese on top, then heated. They're quite tasty, but very difficult to eat. A whole link of Italian sausage is difficult to tear with your teeth, forcing you to squish the bread as you try to get a firm grip.
Ms. W got the meatball sandwich on our first visit. The little meatballs popped out when she tried to bite the sandwich, so she put it down and took it apart. She ended up eating the meatballs with a fork and leaving much of the delectable cheese-covered, red sauce-drenched bread sitting on the plate. The waste was too much for me to bear.
I accused Ms. W of inventing an arcane diet in which she subtracted a few calories from everything she ate. She countered that I was caught up in dumb girl-on-a-diet stereotypes. After some reflection, she suggested that it was probably a control issue: Just because a restaurant put a sandwich together in a certain way didn't mean she had to eat it like that. By subtracting ingredients, she was seeking to balance the ratios: meat to cheese, fillings to bread, etc. (Does this represent a need to balance her life?) Of course, Ms. W was quick to point out that I take my sandwiches apart too, so I can add salt, hot sauce, pepper, Parmesan -- really, anything will do. I guess I have control issues, too. (Is there a psychoanalyst in the house?)
I don't know what all this means, but as we got up to leave Zinnante's that afternoon, I grabbed the red sauce-soaked bread Ms. W had left behind and ate it on the way home. It was scrumptious.
Get the Dining Newsletter
The week's top local food news and events, plus interviews with chefs and restaurant owners, dining tips, and a peek at our print review.