Restaurant Reviews

Deconstructing Sandwiches

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.

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Robb Walsh
Contact: Robb Walsh