"Nobody in Houston knows how to make a roast beef poor boy," displaced Crescent City native Tim Turner said to me the other day. Turner's eyes lit up when I told him about the "roast beef with gravy" poor boy I had just eaten at Calliope's Po-Boy on Jefferson.
The sandwich is loaded with thin-sliced beef in brown gravy and dressed with lettuce, tomato, mayonnaise and pickles. There is so much gravy on the sandwich, it gets squishier and squishier as you eat it. By the time you're halfway through, gravy mixed with mayonnaise starts dripping on your plate. By the last few inches, the poor boy roll is the texture of turkey stuffing.
2130 Jefferson, 713-222-8333.
Hours: 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays.
Fries with gravy and cheese: $3.59
Small roast beef w/gravy poor boy: $7.35
Regular soft shell crab poor boy: $13.95
Fisherman's platter: $17.95
Shrimp fried rice: $5.15
"That's it," Turner said enthusiastically.
The fried oyster poor boy at Calliope's is almost as messy as the roast beef. I had a half-and-half fried shrimp and oyster poor boy, and I much preferred the oyster half. There was nothing wrong with the shrimp — they just weren't juicy enough to make an interesting sandwich. The oysters were big and fat and slightly underdone, so the sandwich got very moist.
There were three battered and fried softshell crabs on the 11-inch poor boy I split with a friend one day. I think they were the size known as "pee-wees." The sandwich was excellent, if only by virtue of the generous portion of crab. It fell somewhere in between the shrimp and the oyster poor boy on the juiciness index. But the rich flavor of all that steamy hot crab and the contrast in temperature with the cold lettuce, tomato and mayonnaise put this sandwich over the top.
Poor boys come in four sizes. The small is seven inches, and it's enough for one person at lunch. The regular 11-inch size is a generous dinner portion and suitable to split. The 16-inch large is a family-size sandwich; the 32-inch extra-large is designed to party.
The sides at Calliope's are a fascinating mix. There are salads, french fries, battered french fries, french fries with melted cheese and gravy, and several varieties of fried rice. I was intrigued by the Asian sides. So I ordered shrimp fried rice.
What came to the table was a delicious version of Vietnamese com tam, the risotto-like dish made with broken rice. The rice was cooked with eggs, onions, peas, carrots and lots of small shrimp. Why it is exactly that broken rice is stickier and nuttier tasting, I'm not exactly sure, but cooking with less expensive broken rice is an old tradition in Vietnam.
There is an entire restaurant devoted to com tam dishes in Hong Kong City Mall, but I can't say I've ever seen it in a poor boy shop. Then again, this poor boy shop is located in old Chinatown, and the owner is an Asian-American.
"It's our spin on fried rice," our waitress, Lisa Carnley, told us. Carnley, who is also the owner of Calliope's Po-Boy, grew up Vietnamese-American in New Orleans. She named Calliope's Po-Boy after the street in the Crescent City. The poor boy shop menu also includes sweet-and-sour shrimp and sweet-and-sour chicken.
"I bet you use a Vietnamese bakery for your baguettes," I said to her. My reasoning was based on the fact that Jay Francis saw someone from BB's Cajun Cafe picking up their order of poor boy rolls at La Baguette on Milam one day recently. So it seemed like a pretty good bet that a Vietnamese American would also use a French-Vietnamese bakery.
Maybe she does, maybe she doesn't. Carnley said it took her a long time to find someone to bake her custom poor boy rolls, and she is keeping her bread source a secret. I find such intrigue over poor boy roll bakeries refreshingly reminiscent of New Orleans.
Carnley used to work for the Copeland's restaurant group in New Orleans. Her family evacuated during Hurricane Katrina and ended up in Hattiesburg, Mississippi. She set up a poor boy shop there, but tired of small-town life. So far, she is loving Houston. "It's nice to be back in a big city," she said.
Calliope's Po-Boy occupies the former location of Jenny's Noodle House just east of Highway 59 on Jefferson. Carnley has had the giant plate-glass windows painted with giant cartoon images of overstuffed sandwiches, anthropomorphic shrimp and other evocative images.
The cartoons make the place look like a Claiborne Street sandwich stand. The spartan interior decor and well-worn used tables and chairs are authentically scruffy. The painted windows cut down on the glare and make the interior a little darker, which is going to be welcome in a couple of months when the weather turns warm.
On my first visit to Calliope's Po-Boy, my lunchmate and I were shocked to see a menu item titled "French Fries with Gravy and Cheese." The description said the fries were topped with melted cheese and smothered with roast beef gravy. What a coincidence.
Both of us are fans of the "Tex-Cajun Virgin" at BB's Cajun Cafe, a plate of shoestring fries topped with roast beef and covered with gravy and chile con queso ["Tex-Cajun Cuisine," April 2]. The peculiar New Orleans side dish of fries with gravy seems to be taking Houston by storm lately.
We asked whether or not the fries were hand-cut. And Carnley, who is the only waitress I've ever had at the restaurant, launched into a long explanation about several failed experiments to produce satisfactory hand-cut fries. She ended up settling on a frozen product. We split a small order anyway.
What we got was a plate of fries with two squares of partially melted American cheese singles and some gravy on top. The cheese was lame; Calliope's gravy was tasty, though it wasn't as rich as BB's. The frozen shoestring fries at BB's stood up to the gravy better, too.
Then again, BB's charges eight bucks for the Tex-Cajun Virgin, while a small plate of french fries with cheese and gravy at Calliope's is only $3.60. And somehow, we managed to finish it.
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The battered Cajun fries I got on another visit were a lot more interesting. And the com tam I got with the "fisherman's paradise" fried seafood platter was probably the best side Calliope's has to offer.
The seafood platter came with two piping hot and wonderfully crunchy catfish filets, four big butterflied fried shrimp, two fat, perfectly fried oysters, and a little softshell crab. Carnley supplied some Kraft tartar sauce packets and a squeeze bottle of a weird and wonderful orange sauce she described as her own homemade tartar sauce. It tasted like a mayo, mustard and Tabasco concoction.
Calliope's Po-Boy has been open less than a month, and there are still a few bugs to work out. The salads are boring, and there are no desserts yet. I vote that Carnley keep looking for better frozen french fries.
But this is as close to a real New Orleans poor boy shop as we've had in Houston since Original New Orleans Poor Boys on Main Street closed. If you find yourself craving a roast beef poor boy with a generous application of gravy, it's already your best choice in town.