Folk Art on Bread
The skinny flute of bread is split in half and toasted, always a good sign. "Do you want your oysters well done?" asks the woman behind the counter at Original New Orleans Po' Boy.
"No, I want them juicy," I say. They come from the fryer in the back, six to a pie plate. The sandwich maker coats the toasted bread with a spatula-full of tartar sauce and prepares a bed of lettuce on one side. Then she lays the golden oysters down one after the other. They fit perfectly. A couple of slices of tomato and the other half of the bread are put in place, and I take my poor boy down the cafeteria line to the cashier.
Steve Wertheimer of the Continental Club (see "Getting to the Soul of Houston," November 9, 2000) told me about this place; he's partial to the cheeseburger poor boy here. Two taxicabs are parked out front, so I assume the drivers are eating here, too. As a former driver for hire, I always take notice when cops and cabbies frequent a restaurant.
The sandwich costs $5.14, tax included. The oysters are hot and juicy. I douse them well with Louisiana hot sauce, push the top layer of the 12-inch roll down hard, and attack. The oysters gush into the lettuce, tomatoes and tartar sauce, creating that perfectly moist and creamy texture. It is one of those rare foods in which every bite tastes better than the last. Along with soft-shell crab poor boys (which are rare), oyster poor boys are my favorite sandwiches. I am not alone in my high opinion of them.
"The grinder of New England is a cousin to the hoagie of Philadelphia, and both are kissin' kin to the ubiquitous submarine. But in the sandwich equivalent of the Social Register, none ranks higher than the poor boy (or po' boy) of New Orleans, and the pride of that family is the oyster poor boy," opined William Rice, food and wine columnist for the Chicago Tribune.
I have tried oyster poor boys all over Houston. Nowhere else did anyone ask me how I wanted my oysters done. They just went ahead and overcooked them. Nowhere else did they use authentic skinny bread, so that the ratio of bread to oyster remained low enough so you can actually taste the juicy mollusks. And nowhere else were the sandwiches so moist. This is clearly the best oyster poor boy in town. And yet, when I try to tell people about Original New Orleans Po' Boy, they look at me like I've lost my mind.
"You mean that grimy little green and yellow place on Main Street?" one woman asked in astonishment. "Yuck," she quickly added.
"You're not talking about that greasy spoon with the painted windows?" my editor asked in disbelief when I said I wanted to write about it.
"Yes," I assured them both. "That's the place." Neither seemed to think that a dive like Original New Orleans Po' Boy was a good candidate for a review.
The best oyster poor boy I've ever eaten came from St. Roch's on St. Claude Street in New Orleans. St. Roch's is an eyesore. The dilapidated wooden structure sits in the down-and-out Marais district, across the tracks from the French Quarter. There are only a couple of communal tables, and the crowd always seems to include at least one homeless person smoking cigarettes and panhandling. The place smells like a fish store, which in fact it is.
Original New Orleans Po' Boy is positively antiseptic by comparison. Granted, the restaurant has seen better days. A new coat of red paint was recently applied to the front of the building, accented with some sloppy white lettering. As for the green and yellow paint on the windows, one assumes the original builder had no idea how hot it would get inside the structure -- or how high the electric bills would be -- when the summer sun poured through the glass. So somebody painted over the windows.
The tall sign in the potholed parking lot is probably the restaurant's most distinguishing feature. On the top is a silhouette of a guy with a cane and a strangely wide top hat. But the sign has been painted over in fire-engine red, so you can't see the guy anymore, except in your imagination. I envision him as an R. Crumb caricature of Southern elegance.
The inside of the restaurant features orange plastic chairs, worn Formica tables and an old terrazzo floor that still bears the scars of previously built-in furniture. The walls are dominated by a collection of Coca-Cola artifacts. There are hundreds of eight-ounce Coke bottles commemorating everything from Enron Field's opening last year to the Kentucky Wildcats' national basketball championship in 1978. There are also Coke bottles in Arabic, Korean and other scripts that I can't identify, along with Coca-Cola jigsaw puzzles, clocks, mirrors, trays, pins and refrigerator magnets. It's a funny-looking place, all right. But what do you expect from a poor boy joint?
I find the answer to that question hanging on the wall. In a framed review that appeared in this paper ("Poor Boy Riches," February 1, 1996), Brad Tyer tells us that Antone's defines the "state-of-the-art" in Houston poor boys, while Original New Orleans Po' Boy is a "low-brow variant."
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.
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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