Last week, while taking a dialect quiz, I came across a question asking what I call a sandwich on long bread. I was a little bit confused to see “poor boy” (the full name of for a po’boy) listed as a synonym for any old sub sandwich. The po’boy sandwich is‚ of course, a New Orleans classic, a tourist must-try, loved by locals, and, in my mind, absolutely unique.
All of that being said, it is in many ways similar to some of these other (lesser) alternatives. This got me wondering: what is it, if anything, that makes the po’boy sandwich unique? Is it just another sandwich?
For almost a century now, the po’boy has been a New Orleans staple. You can find these sandwiches everywhere, from gas station convenience stores to some of the nicest restaurants in town. The sandwich is made with french bread, and mostly stuffed with meat or fried seafood of some kind. When ordering, they’ll ask if you’d like it “dressed,” which refers to some combination of lettuce, tomato, pickles, mayo, etc. On this level, both the tendency to use fried seafood, and the hot temperature of the meat on the sandwich distinguish the po’boy from a more typical sandwich. The most important difference I found though, and the one that makes this sandwich so distinctively New Orleanian, is the bread. The secret ingredient to the airy, crispy texture of the french bread that makes a po’boy a po’boy is the low elevation and high humidity in this city.
You can find great po’boys all over town, so much so that if you ask among locals where you’d find the best po’boy, you’d find we are very passionately divided. I decided that, in order to learn more about po’boys, and about where you could really find the best ones, I would devote my weekend to po’boys.
Having grown up Uptown, I have always been loyal to Domilisie’s, but, for the sake of this research, I decided to branch out. Some research and advice from friends led me to Parkway, a much larger restaurant and bar where many tourists (and locals) swear to find the best po’boys in town.
Domilise’s is a hole in the wall in a quiet uptown neighborhood, easily unnoticed if not for the small hand-painted sign above the door and the long line of customers often sticking out into the street. Inside there are five little tables, a handwritten menu on the wall, and a friendly staff waiting to chat and take your order. We ordered one shrimp po’boy (dressed), one roast beef and gravy, and plenty of root beer, as is tradition.
Both of our sandwiches were great. One sign of a great po’boy is how overstuffed they can get it, while still making it possible for the customer to eat a sandwich like a sandwich. Domilise’s does a great job of this. They don’t over-overstuff, so not too much falls out, but they still pack plenty in there. Also, their shrimp are fried just right so that you can enjoy the thick fried layer, without losing the shrimp on the inside.
The next day we headed out into Mid-City to Parkway, which is thankfully open on Sundays, unlike most other po’boy spots. Compared to Domilise’s modest five table seating area, Parkway, with various seating rooms and crowding, is massive. There was a long line winding through the patio and out onto the sidewalk, so we decided to head into the smaller seating area where we’d be able to order our sandwiches at the bar. Parkway’s menu is much more formally organized, with many options and variations and actual printed copies. For comparison’s sake, our order today was similar, except this time we couldn’t help but throw in some gravy cheese fries and an order of fried pickles (and I highly recommend both). While waiting for our food we each took multiple trips to their comprehensive sauce bar to stock up on every possible condiment.
Parkway’s sandwiches are made on shorter bread, but make up for the length by packing so much in that its at least double the height of the Domilise’s version. We also had the roast beef and gravy po’boy but, if the lack of a photo isn’t a clue, it was so delicious it didn’t last very long. The gravy, which the waitress kindly delivered extra cups of, was amazing and packed with pieces of meat unlike any gravy I’d ever had. I appreciated that on both sandwiches they hollow the bread a little bit more, in order to make room for more inside, despite this making it a little bit more difficult to eat. I loaded my sandwich up with all sorts of mustard and hot sauce and remoulade and loved every bite I could eat. So I brought the rest home with me and enjoyed it even more later that night.
As soon as we left Parkway, my friend—a loyal Parkway customer—had to ask me: between these two, which one did I end up liking more? Domilise’s is so close, easy, and so understated; but Parkway outdoes itself with options and the show of it all. If you have friends or family visiting from out of town, absolutely bring them to Parkway. They will love the whole experience. That being said, Domilise’s has a special family kind of atmosphere, and is a place many New Orleanians, myself included, associate with years and years of happy memories, invoking the kind of joy that makes every already delicious bite taste even better.
Most importantly, I came to understand how much the po’boy is absolutely not just like any other sandwich. There really is something magical about the pairing of flavors and textures that you’ll find in one of these sandwiches. The po’boy is an excellent example of so many of the things I love about New Orleans food in the sense that it brings things together—you can find them in so many neighborhoods, at so many different types of restaurants, and, like most excellent New Orleans dishes, the fanciest restaurants in town often don’t do it any better than the small neighborhood station convenience store. The next time someone asks me what makes a po’boy different, I have my answer at the ready.