Pursuant to another thread, I decided to post separately on a topic near to my gastronomic heart - the "New Orleans Roast Beef Po-boy."
I was fortunate to grow up near New Orleans and was exposed to that city’s wonderful cuisine at a very early age. Somewhere along the road to adulthood, I encountered a New Orleans Roast Beef Po-boy. It was unlike anything that I had ever tasted.
I got to thinking about what set these apart from any myriad number of other roast beef sandwiches. What follows are my observations (many clouded by time) and some personal thoughts. I know that there are many variations, and personal touches, but when one speaks (reverently) of the great ones, some things seem to be common.
For me, it starts with the roast beef, itself. The cut should end up quite lean, though much of the fat could well be rendered out, during cooking. The best, all have a generous amount of garlic used. Many have it embedded in the beef, prior to cooking. Most have the outer area seared, but the cooking seems to be slow, so that the beef almost flakes with a fork. There are usually other seasonings, but the garlic takes front seat. Though slightly crisp on the outside, the inside is moist and tender.
Next comes the gravy. The best is mostly an au jus, from the cooking procedure. The best do not seem to use any thickening agents, but if they are, their use is very restrained. Some of the “debris” from cutting the beef is almost always part of the gravy.
Then, we have the bread. I remember the long baton (smaller than a baguette), which might have been any cut as 1/3 of the loaf. The crust is tight and almost crisp, but not quite, as there is a slightly "chewey" aspect to it. Most seemed to have been dressed with egg white, or maybe butter, prior to toasting. One aspect of the crust is to contain the juice from the fillings and not break down too rapidly – ya’ gotta’ be able to eat it without a knife and fork, right? The inside is moist and slightly spongy, to soak up the gravy/juices. The cellular structure is closed, and very slightly "doughy," but not too much, as the gravy will add a great deal of moisture.
Here, things get a bit cloudy, or personal. Many like the sandwich warmed, while some like them with just the temp of the roast beef from the steam table. Some like them “dressed,” which is often thought of as shredded lettuce, tomato and mayonnaise. For me, it was thinly sliced aged Swiss cheese and the wonderful gravy. OK, I would sneak a little spiced mustard onto mine, but only when the chef’s gaze was averted. I also liked a quick turn in the toaster oven, but not too much. The heat from the roast beef, plus the gravy, was usually enough to start melting the Swiss cheese, but too much.
Because of the au jus gravy, one had to have plenty of napkins handy to eat these in a gentlemanly fashion. The better the po-boy, the more napkins, that were used.
Using the “way-back machine,” probably the two best versions of the New Orleans Roast Beef Po-boy, that I ever encountered were Frank’s Deli, Decatur St (when Frank’s MIL did the cooking) and Acy’s Pool Hall, Magazine St. Each was unique, with Acy’s gravy being a bit thicker than the pure au jus version from Frank’s. Frank’s might have used a touch more garlic, but not by very much. Otherwise, they were very similar, and I got mine with the Swiss cheese. At Frank’s, I always had a jar of spiced mustard behind the counter, that Frank would quietly pull out, when his MIL’s back was turned. With Acy’s, I almost always took the po-boy back to my studio, where I had my own spiced mustard.
In the recent past, only Parkway Bakery has come close – very good, but something is missing. Maybe it’s just my feeble memory.
What is your idea of a great New Orleans Roast Beef Po-boy? Where do you go for a RB po-boy fix? How do you order yours and have the cooks ever balked at your order?