In New Orleans, po-boys are very serious business. And while I was cooking professionally in the Crescent City a few years ago, I had the envious opportunity of sampling sandwiches from all of the city’s most legendary spots, from Mandina’s down on Canal Street to Gene’s over on Elysian Fields. Not only did I taste them all, but I revisited these restaurants several times over, especially as out-of-town guests would stop through to visit. For as many sandwiches as I consumed, the experience of eating a bonafide New Orleans po-boy never wore thin. Quite the opposite — I still have serious po-boy cravings from time to time, and I return to New Orleans once a year, if possible.
As most New Orleans locals will tell you, the foundation of any authentic po-boy is the signature Leidenheimer Baking Company roll. Founded in 1896, the Leidenheimer Baking Company began its business making traditional German breads, but the demands of Louisiana’s French population warranted something more familiar, and Leidenheimer soon established its reputation for baking superior French rolls. Like the best banh mi baguettes, Leidenheimer rolls are imminently tender, yet they’ll shed beaucoup bread crumbs, thanks to their thin-yet-crispy exterior. For a true New Orleans po-boy, it’s really a Leidenheimer roll, or nothing.
In terms of everything else, New Orleans po-boys remain relatively straight-forward in scope, more than one might assume. Most restaurants offer a choice of either fried shrimp, fried oysters, or fried catfish, and the sandwiches themselves are simply “dressed” with lettuce, tomatoes, pickles and remoulade. Of course, there are a few noteworthy variations around town: I usually went to Gene’s for a late-night cheeseburger po-boy, and I always went to Mother’s for their famous roast beef “debris” po-boy. But overall, seafood remains the popular choice, especially with New Orleans being a Gulf Coast city.
Although “lettuce-tomato-pickle-remoulade” remains the standard po-boy dressing for most of New Orleans, here in California, we tend to bend the rules, especially with our cuisine. So with this basic caveat in mind, I wondered what kind of po-boy I could find in the Bay Area, even if it wasn’t strictly authentic.
The oyster po-boy at Brown Sugar Kitchen (pictured above) is an admirable offering: fundamentally sound, flavorful and balanced, and very much in the spirit of New Orleans. The fleshy oysters are deep fried in a “dry” batter, which is most a likely 50-50 combination of corn flour and corn meal, augmented with select Cajun seasonings. These oysters are both large and plentiful, and if they aren’t gulf oysters, they’re damn close. As for the roll, chef Tanya Holland has sourced a well-chosen local alternative to the Leidenheimer, soft but not as flaky.
Oh, and the macaroni and cheese pictured in the foreground? That was easily the single-greatest thing about this entire project. For my tastes, the BSK mac and cheese is one of the Bay Area’s best, and it comes as an optional $1 upgrade with the oyster po-boy. Get it, and the memory will stay with you.
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Brenda’s is a lot like the San Francisco counter-part to the Brown Sugar Kitchen, and I can make many comparisons between the two restaurants. Superficially, they both keep breakfast and lunch hours only, and they are both helmed by two extremely talented chefs, who both happen to be women. The similarities run much deeper, however, as both restaurants excel in Southern comfort food, and both are destination restaurants in the truest sense. Best of all, I always see both chef-owners working the line whenever I visit. Brenda’s offers shrimp and oyster po-boys, with a catfish version as a daily special. The sandwich is mighty tasty, and chef Brenda Buenviaje’s gumbo is the best in the Bay Area, no question. I crave it like I crave New Orleans gumbo.
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Hog Island bucks tradition with a hamburger-style potato bun, beer-battered oysters, and their bacon remoulade (there is also a lemon aioli option, but who are we kidding?). Frankly, I’m fine with all of it. This sandwich is delicious in its own context, and it’s by far the best option in the Napa Valley. It also earns bonus points for being in the Oxbow Market, which means that Three Twins Ice Cream is an easy option for dessert. I like the fact that Hog Island stakes its reputation on oysters, which guarantees that this oyster po-boy should possess an inherent quality within. Sure, it might not be a po-boy in the pure sense, but it can satisfy a craving.
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Queen’s Louisiana Po-Boy takes the most authentic approach possible, shipping in palates of par-baked Leidenheimer bread, which they finish in-house. The result is pretty damn close to the original. Queen’s also brings in gulf shrimp, along with more seasonal fare, such as the soft-shell crab pictured above. This sandwich is worth a quick trip down the 101, and the restaurant is freeway-close for a convenient stop (just exit Paul Avenue, and you’re there already). Queen’s carries a nice selection of Zapp’s potato chips and Abita Beer, which is a nice touch. But I just wish they — or anybody — would offer Barq’s Red Cream Soda. I can’t find it anywhere in California.
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One of the hallmarks of a great po-boy is an abundance of shrimp, oysters, or whatever is designated as the filling. At the Boxing Room in Hayes Valley, their shrimp po-boy is endearing because five or six fried shrimp always garnish the plate, meaning that you can either use them to stuff the sandwich extra full, or you can just snack on the extra shrimp at will. It’s a thoughtful touch that shows some Southern generosity. Most po-boys at the Boxing Room also come standard with hush puppies, which are a pleasant alternative to french fries.
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Angeline’s puts Creole mustard on their po-boys, which is strange to me. Even though the mustard may be Creole, it’s not the flavor I’m used to. However, I don’t count this against Angeline’s since (a) they do mention this fact on the menu, and (b) they do have remoulade in house. My solution is simple: I order Angeline’s shrimp po-boy with no mustard, substitute remoulade, and suddenly this sandwich seems more familiar.
The gumbo upgrade is also worth getting, although I don’t rate Angeline’s gumbo as highly as I rate Brenda’s gumbo. It’s pretty good nonetheless, and much more interesting than french fries. In the past, I have ordered the jambalaya at Angeline’s, and have been underwhelmed to the point of not even wanting to finish it. Not all restaurants can be all things to all people, but for a decent shrimp po-boy, it’s Berkeley’s best option (just remember about the mustard).
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The Fremont Diner takes its cue from the lobster rolls of Maine, and features a shrimp po-boy on a hot dog bun. The beer-battered shrimp are much bigger than what’s typical (in addition to being beer-battered), and the toasted bun is far more robust than your average supermarket-variety hot dog bun. All in all, it’s kinda good, but it should only be an option if the Fremont Diner runs out of its Nashville spicy fried chicken.
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