A visit to New Orleans wouldn’t be complete without indulging in a big, messy, stick-to-your-ribs, good old fashioned Po’Boy.
We only had a few precious meals left on this trip, and with so many places serving this quintessential NOLA sandwich, how would we ever decide where to get the best po’boy? Leave it to the locals to show me the way.
Our good eats gurus, Miss Dawn, Zachary, and Harrison, took us to Parkway Bakery & Tavern, tucked away in Mid-City, overlooking Bayou St. John. Self-proclaimed as “the oldest most entertaining po’boy shop” in New Orleans, Parkway is a true local institution for down-home delicious po’boys, with people lined up out the door for a taste of their famous Roast Beef and Gravy. You’ve heard of five-napkin sandwiches? This monster should come with a Brawny roll and some Wet Naps.
The slow-cooked, shredded roast beef and rich, roast beef gravy are so popular, you can even opt to smother your French Fries with them. Holy heart attack.
As for the po’boys, there are about two dozen options on the menu, but almost everyone we polled while standing in line suggested we go for the Roast Beef (duh), the Fried Shrimp, or…better yet, a combo of both: the Parkway Surf and Turf — tender juicy beef and golden fried shrimp, finished with a healthy dousing of meaty gravy and fully “dressed” with lettuce, tomato, pickles, and mayo. Now that’s a sandwich.
The history and love of the po’boy is well documented at the Southern Food & Beverage Museum, a fun little stop along NOLA’s Riverwalk:
The name po’boy originated in the late 1920′s when the streetcar drivers of New Orleans went on strike for four months. The union men had many supporters, including brothers Bennie and Clovis Martin, streetcar operators turned restaurateurs. The Martin Brothers declared, “Our meal is free to any members of Division 194…We are with you till Hell freezes, and when it does, we will furnish blankets to keep you warm.” That free meal meant a free sandwich, the brothers’ specialty. Bennie Martin recalled, “We fed those men free of charge until the strike ended. Whenever we saw one of the striking men coming, one of us would say, ‘Here comes another poor boy.’“ The name stuck.
Besides its name, the other defining mark of the po’boy is the marvelous bread it’s made on. New Orleans French bread evolved from environmental circumstances and the ingredients available. The humidity of the region made it difficult for bakers to produce hard crusts and capture yeast from the air. Wheat flour was also expensive. In order to create a loaf that would last longer and cost less, bakers began adding sugar and shortening to act as preservatives. They also began adopting German and Austrian bread-making techniques of adding milk to the dough, creating a much lighter, airy texture. This lighter loaf required less flour, resulting in a cheaper loaf…that was utterly delicious.
“The delicate balance of a thin, crisp crust with enough firmness to stand up to brown and red gravy and a lightness that would not compete with Gulf seafood…a loaf that diners could readily bite into without cutting the roof of their mouth, as might happen with traditional French bread; however, the loaf had to be strong enough to hold up to gravy, mayonnaise, and other ‘dressings.’”
– Sandy Whann, of Leidenheimer Baking Company
(as excerpted from the Southern Food & Beverage Museum)
Form and function at its finest.
The beverage of choice at Parkway is locally bottled Barq’s Root Beer (you’ll be on a sugar high for days). And, the chip of choice is Zapp’s kettle cooked potato chips. Flavors like Spicy Cajun Crawtators, Cajun Dill Gator-Tators, and even Spicy Creole Tomato with Tabasco from this Louisiana company have earned them a cult following in the chip-chip circuit.
Parkway is a family-run, neighborhood gem with loyal patrons who have been stuffing their faces with the same po’boy lovin’ for generations. The place has a well-worn charm. The walls are decorated with photos, newspaper clippings, and other bits and pieces of New Orleans nostalgia dating back to the 1920′s.
Even a picture of President Obama and First Lady Michelle hangs proudly – the first family stopped in for a bite last year while they were in town commemorating the 5th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina (POTUS ordered the Shrimp Po’Boy, in support of the recovering Gulf seafood industry). Like many of their neighbors, Parkway suffered flooding during Katrina, but was able to reopen just 88 days after the storm.
Also adding to the warm, neighborhood feel of Parkway is just how darned nice everyone is! Is it the Southern hospitality? Is it the euphoria of po’boy food coma? Who knows, but it sure was lovely chatting with people as we waited to place our order, getting the scoop on the best food in town…we even got a little key to the city keepsake from a kind lady who shared our table (Thank you, Miss Page in the Mayor’s office!).
If po’boys have this effect on people – and with all that juicy, meaty goodness and heavenly New Orleans French bread, how could it not – then I do declare, there needs to be a Parkway Po’Boy shop on every corner.
Parkway Bakery & Tavern
538 Hagan Ave. (at the corner of Toulouse St.)
New Orleans, LA 70119
Open: 11am – 10 pm; closed every Tuesday