Poor Boy Riches
There are restaurants in this city that deserve praise for the expertise with which a chef prepares a classic dish; there are restaurants that earn accolades for the kitchen's imaginative use of ingredients. There are restaurants that attract their customers with a sophisticated decor, and, likewise, there are restaurants that draw steady streams of curiosity seekers through the maintenance of a sophisticated clientele.
And then there's Original New Orleans Po-Boys.
Planted in the concrete on a decaying stretch of Main Street between Elgin and the Highway 59 overpass, Original New Orleans Po-Boys' architecture -- sloped back roof and alternating rectangles of green and yellow paint framing a thin, clear strip of eye-level glass -- looks from the outside like a throwback to '50s-era diners. If you passed by the restaurant's neon-less red-cane-and-top-hat sign only in the evening hours, as I must have a million times, you might assume what I did: that the place is just some leftover remnant of stranger days. In actuality, owner Pete Hope bought the place from a New Orleans native nine years ago, and the restaurant itself turns a healthy 20 this year. The air of evening desolation comes because Original New Orleans Po-Boys closes at six most days and doesn't do dinner. So when darkness falls, the building fades into its un-revitalized surroundings like one more funky antique awaiting the bulldozers.
But arrive during rush hour, for early breakfast (doors open at 4:30 a.m. six days a week) or noontime lunch, and the parking lot is filled with a black, white and brown contingent of cops, Federal Express drivers from a neighborhood depot and regulars taking advantage of the diner's location midway between downtown's offices and the medical center's operating rooms. Or maybe they're taking advantage of the opaque panes of colored glass that make it so difficult to see the interior and its occupants from the street; Original New Orleans Po-Boys is filled with guilty pleasures of the sort most folks don't like to flaunt in health-enlightened company. Vegetarians and the weight-conscious are not coddled here.
The guilty pleasure is diner fare prepared in classic diner fashion -- which is to say, fried within an inch of its life. But when nothing but a grease trap will do, Original New Orleans is the place to go. A double-sided, small-print 8 1/2-by-11 menu covers all the bases, with breakfast on one side, steaks and plates, burgers, sandwiches and poor boys on the other. Pore over that, immobilized by the permutations (should you have one hot cake and two pork chops? one hot cake and one pork chop? two hot cakes and one pork chop? two hot cakes and two pork chops? a nickel's worth of extra catsup? or a dime's worth of extra veggies on your burger?) until the antsy line behind you starts shuffling its feet. Place your order with the first of a dozen or so yellow-shirted food assemblers behind the long counter, and watch them go to work. Order the double-decker fried ham and Swiss sandwich, on white or wheat, and feel your mouth water as the fry cook peels two thick slices of pig out of the meat cooler and plops them onto a table-sized skillet beneath a generous scoop of melting margarine. The result is a gooey mess that goes down fine with a Styrofoam bucket full of frozen crinkle fries and an icy can of Coke, or maybe a pink lemonade.
Hamburgers are constructed with minimal fuss, available in small or jumbo proportions, single patty or double, with a hefty slice of cheese and plenty of meat juice sopping through the store-bought buns. Original New Orleans Po-Boys may be the last burger-serving joint in town that doesn't offer bacon as a topping, and the lack is an anachronistic relief in an over-baconed age.
I can't recommend the (relatively) pricier plates -- one dozen oysters, French fries, toast, a sad lettuce and tomato salad, or a dozen shrimp accompanied by same, topping off the menu's price range at a staggering $7.90 -- for the same reason I don't order filet mignon at Denny's. But the pork chop plate (two fatty chops, fries, salad and a buttered bun) is a gut-stuffing deal at $4.95. Buttery hash browns -- actually, fried chunks of potato -- are a good bet from the side-order menu.
On the breakfast side, the options are drawn from a stable of eggs, hot cakes, pork chops, ham, bacon and country sausage, and they're pretty well interchangeable, depending on your morning mood. You can't go wrong, though, with the Number 1 Special on a Bun: melted American cheese, patty sausage and an egg on a grease-slick hamburger bun -- a sort of proto-McMuf-fin that's not nearly as carefully arranged and way more satisfying than its pre-packaged offspring. Throw in a cup of Sysco coffee (most everything here is unloaded from a Sysco truck), and you've got the perfect breakfast before an early morning fishing expedition (if anyone does that anymore), or the perfect comedown from late, late night malnutrition.
The Antone's franchise may define the popular poor boy state of the art in Houston, but the Original New Orleans Po-Boys poor boy is a low-brow variant, a rudimentary fix of margarine-toasted buns slathered with mayonnaise, dressed with sliced tomatoes and institutional chopped lettuce, bulked up with one of 25 options and rolled into a steaming piece of foil with its contents scribbled on the outside in blue marker. New Orleans' regular and super poor boy varieties do a competent take on poor boy tradition with paper-wrapped salami, baked ham and provolone, but it's the Southern-fried cousins that make the difference. Oyster loaf poor boys dripping hot, gritty juice are hard to take for a non-oyster lover, but a fried catfish poor boy is crisp on the outside, tender on the inside and nearly a foot long. You can get your boy stuffed with shrimp loaf, hot roast beef, tuna, eggs or hamburger, but the best I tried was the chicken fried steak version -- a deep-fried breaded patty sliced in half and arranged on a crisp bun -- that was big and hot and appropriately peppery. Top off the meal with a passably moist slice of lemon or carrot cake, and you've got a cheap, no-nonsense cornucopia.
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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