Poor Boys and Philanthropy
The sign on top of the newly painted red, blue and yellow building on 19th Street near Beall reads: "Jazzie Cafe, Famous Hot Wings and Po-Boys." There are two tables and a walk-up counter inside the tiny establishment, and a few more tables outside on a wooden deck. But mostly people stop by and pick up their orders to go.
The hot-sweet-chile chicken wings were by far the best thing I tried at Jazzie Cafe. The wings are coated in a thick, Asian-flavored sauce that tastes like a combination of orange sauce, hoisin and Vietnamese chiles. They aren't served with celery and blue cheese dressing, but chicken fried rice is probably a better accompaniment anyway. And Jazzie Cafe can fix you up with all the fried rice you need.
There are actually three kinds of fried rice on the menu, along with gumbo, fried pickles and meat pies. Egg rolls and boudin are both on the appetizer list. This sort of Cajun-Asian fusion comes naturally to owner Beth Nguyen, a Louisiana Vietnamese-American who opened Jazzie Cafe after she realized she wasn't going back to New Orleans anytime soon.
Nguyen used to work at a restaurant called Orchid Seafood off Elysian Fields near the French Quarter. Last summer, she was returning from a cruise vacation when her ship hit heavy seas off New Orleans. By the time she got to her house, the front edge of Katrina was already approaching. She evacuated to a friend's place in Pearland, where she lived for a while with as many as 15 other evacuees. Some of her family went back to New Orleans and found that their home, and the Orchid Seafood restaurant, were under seven feet of water. So Nguyen decided to make a go of it here in Houston. She also persuaded her boyfriend, Wayne Tran, to come and give her a hand.
I heard about her local restaurant from a reader who sent me an e-mail that read, in part: "I am originally from New Orleans and have been searching in vain for a real po' boy ever since relocating to Houston in 1980. This is the closest I have come. They have more or less real French bread, which crisps up when toasted. They serve HUGE shrimp po' boys, catfish, all the usual suspects, and my favorites -- sloppy roast beef and gravy, dressed, and hot Creole sausage patties. I usually drive back with an ice chest loaded with them, because you can't find Creole sausage patties anywhere else.
"P.S. I have no interest, financial or otherwise, in the restaurant. They are just a cute young couple trying to make a living after surviving hard times. Plus, the food is truly good."
So, on the reader's advice, I went and checked the place out. On my first visit, I ordered a hamburger poor boy and a roast beef poor boy. The hamburger meat came from a frozen patty. I asked the owner about the french fries and onion rings, and she said they had been frozen too. I was going to try the red beans and rice or the gumbo, but the owner didn't recommend either. She said she had never tried them.
It was great to see a roast beef poor boy in Houston, since this was the original version of the sandwich. The poor boy, or po' boy, got its name during a streetcar strike in New Orleans in 1929. The city sided with the strikers, and one philanthropic restaurant offered a cheap meal to any of those "po' boys" who showed up at the eatery's back door at closing time. For a nickel, they got a sandwich of leftover French bread loaves filled with meat trimmings, potatoes and gravy. Thus the "po' boy" sandwich was born. It would be easy to say Jazzie Cafe has the best roast beef poor boy in town, because I haven't had any others. But the truth is, the meat looked commercially sliced and the gravy tasted canned or instant.
It wasn't even close to the kind of New Orleans roast beef poor boys I'm used to. At Mother's on Poydras Street, they make them with thick, fresh-sliced roast beef and lots of meat juice. Or you can get a "debris" poor boy made with the bits of roast beef that fell on the cutting board.
I got all the poor boys I ordered at Jazzie Cafe fully dressed with lettuce, tomato, pickles and mayo. The hamburger poor boy was pretty good, but nothing out of the ordinary. So I sent the reader who'd written me this e-mail reply: "Have you tried Original New Orleans Poor Boys on Main? Their cheeseburger poor boy and oyster poor boys are awesome. I just went to Jazzie, and I was underwhelmed. I'll try again. Asked the woman (Beth Nguyen) if she liked the red beans and rice or gumbo better, she said she didn't eat either. That's a ringing endorsement!"
And he shot this message back: "Yes, I have tried the Main po' boys and the bread isn't right. Try the Creole sausage patty po' boy at Jazzie's. That is so uniquely New Orleans, you may not have heard of it before."
Well, he was right. I had never heard of a Creole sausage patty poor boy. And since I love sausages of all varieties, I went back and ordered one. Creole sausage patties look like smallish hamburger patties and taste like a mildly spiced blend of pork and beef. The long, oval rolls really are the right shape for the sausage. If I had eaten Creole sausage poor boys in my youth, I might have blubbered over these. But in truth, I much preferred the link sausage poor boy. The sausage links were slit in half lengthwise and grilled, then served on the toasted bun with the usual lettuce, tomato and mayo.
I also ordered two links of boudin, one pork and one crawfish. When Wayne Tran said they had only two links of crawfish boudin left, I should have realized something was wrong. The last two links in the pot were disgustingly dried out. It was an odd sort of boudin with a thin casing -- not the natural casing I'm used to. Nguyen said she got it shipped from New Orleans. I think she ought to save herself the expense and go get some real boudin over at Burt's Meat Market and Cajun Foods on Lyons Avenue in the Fifth Ward.
And while I'm offering Beth Nguyen free advice, let me also point out that if she has never tasted the red beans and rice or gumbo she serves, then she needs to take them off her menu. Also, if she wants to excel at hamburger poor boys in a hamburger-loving town like Houston, she's going to have to start with fresh meat. Fries made from freshly cut potatoes wouldn't hurt her business, either.
I like the spicy-sweet chicken wings and the unique New Orleans-style sausage sandwiches at Jazzie Cafe. Most of the other food ranges from average to awful. I wish I could recommend the place more highly. It's great to see Katrina victims pulling themselves up by their bootstraps. But there are lots and lots of mediocre restaurant owners out there who need a break.
As a restaurant critic, I can't get involved in philanthropy -- but you can. Go eat at Jazzie Cafe, not because the food is any good, but just to help these "po' folks" get back on their feet. You will feel better for it, and I will applaud your community spirit.
And if you want to, do them a real favor: Bring them some Burt's boudin.
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