Food Fight: Battle Po-Boy

Photo by Erika Ray
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We have a friend -- a born-and-raised Cajun who's as passionate about her food as she is about her Motherland itself -- who claims that it's impossible to get an authentic po-boy here in Houston. It has nothing to do with the seafood or the fixings or even the people creating the po-boys, many of them Louisiana transplants like herself. It has everything to do with the bread, she says.

Something about the combination of New Orleans's proximity to the Gulf of Mexico and its precarious location below sea level creates a unique humidity that she claims is essential to baking the perfect loaf of crusty French bread that is the foundation of a proper po-boy. But Houston has a pretty unique brand of humidity all its own. Taken with the availability of fresh seafood and the knowledge of the Louisianans crafting the po-boys, we should manage to come up with at least a passable imitation.

In this week's Food Fight, we pitted two of the city's best po-boy establishments against one another to see who could build the best shrimp po-boy. Witness the results for yourself below.

Calliope's Po-Boy

In a recent interview with Dish, owner Lisa Carnley told Paul Galvani that the secret to Calliope's success lies in their bread. "The bread is authentic po-boy bread, just like in New Orleans," she told the Houston Press. "It took us forever to find it here in Houston, and we have a bakery make it specially for us." While many restaurants in town are quiet about where they purchase their bread, we're not surprised that Calliope keeps this such a guarded secret -- the bread makes the entire po-boy.

We ordered a shrimp po-boy at Calliope's -- our first shrimp po-boy there, since we're already addicted to the wonderfully drippy roast beef and (in season) oyster -- and dug in. The shrimp were lightly breaded and battered, juicy and plump. All the salad fixings were in place -- tomatoes, lettuce and pickles -- and perfectly crispy. Everyone doctors their po-boys a bit, whether with Crystal or Tabasco or some other sauce, and we prefer Calliope's housemade tartar sauce.

And then there's the bread. Crispy on the outside, soft and only slightly chewy on the inside, it's as close to perfect po-boy bread as you'll get in Houston. Together, all the elements complement each other perfectly.

Jazzie Cafe

This tiny -- and we do mean tiny -- Heights outpost is both a Cajun and a Chinese kitchen, a great sign if you can't make up your mind as to what cuisine you're after, but an ominous one if you're looking for outstanding food from either side. Still, although the slightly run-down interior and straggling bags of odd, off-brand chips may give you pause, Jazzie's food is surprisingly good (with the possible exception of the overcooked tater tots).

The shrimp po-boy was excellent in nearly every regard: The shrimp were perfectly cooked -- to the same standard as Calliope's -- and the salad fixings were abundant, although we could have gone for a bit more lettuce. The bright-red Sri Racha sauce on the table inevitably found its way onto the po-boy, but you can always ask Jazzie's to "jazz up" your po-boy when you order it -- it's code for "extra-spicy" -- if you don't want to do the work yourself.

The only downside to Jazzie's po-boy was, alas, the bread. Alarmingly thin and without even a hint of crunch, it was a disappointing package for such an otherwise good po-boy to be enveloped in. But if the proprietors were to find a reliable bakery for their bread, they'd be going head-to-head with Calliope for the best po-boy in town.

The Winner

There's a reason that newcomer Calliope's is a favorite here at the Press. Robb Walsh's review of the place called it the closest we'll find to a New Orleans-style po-boy as you'll find in Houston, and it recently topped our list of 10 best places to eat in EaDo. With fantastic fixings on top of superb bread, Calliope's wins this battle with moxy to spare.

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