A leprechaun was marauding through the crowded streets of the New Orleans Po-Boy Preservation Festival, inadvertently scaring little children and hoisting a sign imploring visitors to visit Mahony's Po-Boy Shop. As an advertising gimmick it worked great, but I had to ask myself, "Does Mahony's need more recognition?" The week before, a New York Times article had all but anointed Mahony's as the standard-bearer for the so-called neo-tradionalist po-boy makers of New Orleans.
You see, according to the powers that be in the Big Easy, the New Orleans po-boy is an endangered sandwich. An invasion of five dollar footlongs as well as aggressive cost-cutting by long-established New Orleans po-boy shops has apparently resulted in a lowering of both quality and expectations for one of the truly unique creations of this food mad city — the authentic New Orleans po-boy. This "preservation" festival would celebrate and confirm everything that is good and true about the New Orleans po-boy.
I went to the New Orleans Po-Boy Preservation Festival to find out for myself what makes a New Orleans po-boy truly authentic. For months, my fellow po-boy fanatics and I had debated whether the current crop of Houston po-boy shops served the real thing. Some of my friends would even drag along native New Orleanians to confirm authenticity or to cast doubt (and aspersions) on Houston po-boy shops like Calliope Po-Boy, Jazzie Cafe and BB's Cajun Cafe. For me, the festival offered a one-stop shop to sample only the most authentic po-boys to be had in New Orleans.
Upon returning to Houston I visited local po-boy shops on a regular basis. As a baseline, I ordered a fried shrimp po-boy at every location, on every visit. After eating 20-plus po-boys in Houston over the last couple of weeks, I was ready to render a verdict.
What makes a New Orleans po-boy authentic? Fresh ingredients are a must, be it the "filling" in the form of shrimp, oysters or roast beef, or the "dressing" in the form of mayonnaise, lettuce and tomatoes. But after much research, both on the web and on the ground at the festival, I confirmed what po-boy aficionados already know: it's the bread. Specifically the po-boy loaf produced by New Orleans bakers like Leidenheimer and Gendusa. The bread has a thin, crisp, parchment-like crust covering a downy, light-as-air interior. New Orleanians claim that due to factors unique to their city such as the sea level (it's mostly below), humidity and even the water, authentic New Orleans po-boy bread can only be produced in New Orleans. These arguments, in my opinion, are specious, driven more by turf protection than scientific fact. But still, such claims did not bode well for finding authentic po-boy bread in Houston.
As a benchmark, I chose my favorite fried shrimp po-boy at the festival: Acme Oyster House. Acme is rarely mentioned in the same breath as the po-big-boys of New Orleans like Domilise's, Crabby Jack's, Mother's, or Uglesich's (R.I.P.). But on this day, Acme put out a no-frills, authentic, prototypical fried shrimp po-boy: Leidenheimer bread ("hinged," i.e. not cut all the way though length-wise, arguably a sign of authenticity), a simple dressing of mayonnaise, shredded lettuce, and tomato, and an overstuffed filling of perfectly crisp and seasoned fried shrimp. I would evaluate all Houston po-boys against this tasty benchmark.
Calliope Po-Boy (2310 Jefferson) is owned by a former New Orleanian who left after Katrina and eventually made it to Houston. She claims that her bread is produced locally and is authentic New Orleans po-boy bread. It's not exactly like Leidenheimer bread, but it's close. It has a crisp, snappy crust, with a lighter-than-normal (for Houston) interior. The fried shrimp filling is overstuffed if a bit bland. Dressings are fresh and tasty. Calliope po-boys may not be completely authentic, but they are a pretty good approximation. The Louisiana hot sausage po-boy is worth a try.
On every visit to BB's Cajun Cafe (2710 Montrose), the bread was the least appealing of all the Houston po-boy joints. Invariably chewy and dense, I would often toss the bread aside and pick out the fried shrimp. This bread was closer to a traditional French baguette, rather than a New Orleans po-boy loaf. Admittedly (and possibly forgivably), BB's bills its po-boys as authentic New Orleans "style" po-boys. Which is kind of like saying you own an authentic Rolex "style" watch, but whatever. Less forgivable are the rubbery fried shrimp I encountered on a couple of visits. Some of my friends swear by the "Midnight Masterpiece," the roast beef po-boy. This may be a better choice than the shrimp.
Jazzie Cafe in the Heights (1221 West 19th) is another joint opened by former New Orleanians displaced by Katrina. It's gone through at least a couple of ownership changes since opening. A few regulars I know have noted ups and downs over the years. Still, it's gained a sizable following for its large and tasty, but mostly unauthentic, po-boys. Mainly it's the bread: a soft exterior and a dense interior are admittedly delicious but not recognizable as authentic po-boy bread. Ultimately, it's more of a fried shrimp subway sandwich. Some swear by the soft shell crab po-boy here.
My friend and fellow food explorer Jay Francis turned me on to the po-boys at The Big Mamou, the newish Cajun joint in the Heights (903 Studewood). He pointed out that they claim to procure their po-boy bread from Gambino's Bakery in New Orleans (Mama's Cajun in Cypress claims the same). That sounded promising. The bread does indeed have a thin, crispy, crumbly exterior with an airy-light interior (hinged too). Checking Gambino's website, they do offer national distribution of frozen loaves which they (unbelievably) claim to be tastier than fresh baked loaves! The main drawback of this po-boy, however, was a filling of small shrimp whose breading separated after a few bites. Messy and annoying. The remoulade-like sauce was a positive. Overall, The Big Mamou fried shrimp po-boy is the closest to an authentic New Orleans po-boy you can get in Houston.
So is it possible to get an authentic New Orleans po-boy in Houston? Regrettably, but not unexpectedly, the answer is no. You can get a fair but flawed approximation at The Big Mamou, and a very tasty and filling ersatz po-boy at Jazzie. If you pick the right po-boys at BB's Cajun or Calliope, you can get some very good sandwiches there too. For now, the only place to get an authentic New Orleans po-boy is in New Orleans. Perhaps that is as it should be. We should all be happy to let Mahony's, Domilise's and Crabby Jack's continue to hoist the banner (sans leprechaun) of the bona fide New Orleans po-boy.