New Orleans has a rich history in many ways. One of these is its cuisine. Although many dishes from this area are easily recognized by name, none is more well known nor more prepared out of New Orleans than the poor boy (sandwich).
During a recent trip to New Orleans, my traveling companion and I decided to eat poor boys from Parkway Bakery and Tavern (PBT). PBT is credited as being one of the first establishments to serve poor boys in the early part of the twentieth century.
Before going further, I think a brief history of the poor boy is in order. As with much of culinary history, that of the poor boy is sloppy, as much as the sandwich can be itself.
What is a poor boy anyway? It is a sandwich on specialty French bread made from just about any filling ranging from french fries to roast beef to fried oysters. Gravies and sauces can top the sandwich’s filling, but traditionally the poor boy is “dressed”. A dressed poor boy is one that has mayo, tomato, pickles and shredded lettuce as its topping.
Sandwiches on a bread loaf had been known in the area since at least the mid-nineteenth century. This was, at the time, promoted as a novel method to bring fried oysters home for a meal besides the commonly used tin container.
Contemporary notions of a poor boy are credited to the Martin brothers, who opened a cafe in the French Market of New Orleans in 1921. As the French Market is adjacent to the Mississippi River, the Martins wanted to serve affordable food to the dock workers and truck farmers in the area. This predates the commonly accepted story of the Martins providing food gratis to striking streetcar workers in 1929, food for those “poor boys”.
Perhaps the Martin’s real contribution to the poor boy besides its name were their refinements to the commonly encountered bread loaf sandwich of the day. These were the addition of house-made mayo, shredded lettuce (unheard of at the time) and consistency regarding bread shape.
Most bread used in a modern New Orleans poor boy, specialty French Bread, comes from the famed, over century-old Leidenheimer Bakery there. The French Bread here is known for its crispy crust and fluffy interior. Some maintain bread from this bakery is the sine qua non of the poor boy. The modified French Loaves for poor boys do not have tapered, but rectangular ends. This allows for no wasted space on the loaf for its contents.
Poor boys are also known as “po boys,” a term invented by local media in the 1970’s.
Parkway Bakery opened in 1911, producing breads and pastries. In 1929, as the sandwich gained local fame, a poor boy shop was added to the bakery. This was to primarily cater to the nearby American Can Company, one of the largest manufacturers of tin cans and containers at the time.
When the nearby can manufacturing plant closed in 1988, Parkway followed five years later. The property was repurchased, opening again in 2005. Although the bakery had been long closed, the present owner added a bar and expanded the seating area. They are said to serve over 1000 people daily.
The original building has been well restored and is a neighborhood, if not city treasure.
PBT has a very diverse menu. Although there is additional seating inside adjacent to the tavern and outside, we were lucky to get a table in the tavern. I loved the frenetic energy of the bar area at lunchtime, in addition to the historical ambiance.
My traveling companion and I shared a large roast beef and oyster poor boy. The oyster poor boy was unbelievably delicious. It was dressed, and according to the chef, had almost a full pound of fried oysters on it. The oyster poor boys are only served on Monday and Wednesday. I would recommend eating here on one of those days.
Being large, this sandwich was more than enough for two. In a gluttonous poor boy feeding frenzy we would come to regret, we also shared a large dressed roast beef poor boy. Roast beef poor boys are prepared in many ways in New Orleans. At PBT, the roast beef is simmered for hours in gravy, so much so that it is said to fall apart “if you look at it long enough”.
When served dressed and with gravy, it becomes a sloppy, tasty mess. A friend, known locally as a New Orleans aficionado, told me a roast beef poor boy is judged by how many napkins one needs to eat one. At PBT, it could easily be a six-inch stack, a blue ribbon winner by this measure.
My traveling companion, having very much a sweet tooth, ordered the bread pudding for dessert. Bread pudding is made from eggs, milk, sugar, raisins and French bread. It is topped with a rum sauce made from rum, corn syrup, vanilla and butter. It is to say the least, sweet and filling. I almost never eat desserts, but tried this and found it, like the sandwiches, delicious.
The lines at PBT can be long, especially during Mardi Gras festivities and the annual New Orleans Jazz Fest; the latter held at the nearby New Orleans Fair Grounds.
Having eaten at PBT before I was not, as usual, disappointed. The poor boys ordered were excellent in addition to the bread pudding. For two people, I would recommend not ordering more than one large poor boy. It is more than enough for two and if much more is eaten, will keep you very full until almost the next day. This is not something you want to happen if you are visiting the city and want to try as much of the local cuisine as you can. On the flip side, great food such as that served at PBT will give you plenty of sustenance to explore the city or collect throws from the floats as we did during Mardi Gras.
Even if you truly are a “poor boy”, the food sampled at PBT is not only delicious but reasonably priced. As an added plus, this establishment is also easily accessible by public transport in New Orleans, which costs three dollars daily for unlimited use of buses, streetcars and ferries. When visiting here or at any time, PBT is highly recommended.
Open Wednesday-Monday, 11AM-10PM; Christmas Eve and New Years Eve, 11AM-4PM; Closed Christmas and New Years Day; All major credit cards accepted; Kid’s meals available; Restaurant parking lot available at no charge.