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Why the Po-Boy Can Only Be Made in New Orleans

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po boy from pops
<strong>Pop's Poboys |&nbsp;</strong>Denny Culbert

We’re throwing down the gauntlet here, folks -- born and bread (get it?) in NOLA, the po-boy is not just one of the greatest sandwiches ever invented, it’s OURS, and we adore it and protect it like a blood relative. Of course, we love our muffulettas. But NOLA sandwich pride is rightfully wrapped up in po-boys, which are as plentiful in this city as they are varied. Understandably, people try to export this local gem... but while folks can attempt to make a po-boy outside of NOLA (bless their hearts), their undertaking will inevitably end in failure. Here’s why you can’t make the po-boy anywhere else...

We invented the damn things

It would be silly to celebrate a Kentucky Hot Brown in San Diego, or expect excellence out of a Philly cheesesteak in Ohio... beef on weck belongs in Buffalo, and lobster rolls look ridiculous in in Idaho. Geography is important, when it comes to regional American sandwiches, and so is provenance. The po-boy was invented in NOLA -- the only sandwich we know of that was created, in true American fashion, because of a labor dispute -- and in NOLA shall it ever reside. Plenty of people have tried to sell boring facsimiles of this treasured, iconic sandwich outside of the Big Easy, and nary a one gets it right. If you want the real deal, you need to go to the source.

You can't really make the bread anywhere else

It says something wonderful about New Orleans’ history and culture that the two biggest bakeries producing what we call "French bread" are owned and operated by German and Italian families (Leidenheimer and Gendusa, respectively). But more importantly, no matter how hard people try to make our iconic loaves outside of NOLA, they ALWAYS fail. ALWAYS. Even the master bakers from Gendusa’s tried to open up a shop in Baton Rouge, a mere hour west of New Orleans, and couldn’t replicate their own results.

No one has successfully explained why our French loaves are the way they are. But it has something to do with chemistry and climate specific to New Orleans, much in the same way that you’ll have a difficult time locating a decent bagel the further you travel from New York, or a good sourdough roll outside the Bay area, and so on. Many have tried, all have failed. A po-boy is a New Orleans thing, and forever shall it be.

Wallet-friendly local seafood makes this

When it comes to super affordable seafood, South Louisiana has an embarrassment of riches: huge, clean, local oysters; beautiful shrimp; perfectly filleted catfish... all ingredients that are absolutely necessary if you want to make an honest-to-God po-boy, and that get really pricey in other parts of the country.

Sadly, some popular local spots -- like Domilise’s and Parkway -- have been jacking up the prices in recent years, but these (admittedly fantastic) restaurants are far from the only game in town. You know that sketchy uptown street corner gas station, the one with the dudes selling CDs outside? That place makes an amazing catfish po-boy the size of a pirogue, served hot on genuine Leidenhimer bread. I have been to places in Yankee-land that sell three shitty oysters on a stale French baguette for $19 and have the balls to call it a "po-boy." As a proud New Orleanian, I’m literally and figuratively not buying it.
 

The debris makes it legit

As with all things po-boy related, New Orleans takes a simple thing and spins it into culinary gold. Sure, you can find brown roast beef gravy in other towns, many not too far from the 504. But is it honest-to-goodness "debris gravy?" Probably not. For newcomers to our fair city, we use the term "debris" to mean those magical bits of beef that wind up in the thickened sauce that graces many of our po-boys. That’s the real litmus test of a gravy here -- proof positive that it wasn’t made from a can or jar, or hastily thrown together. Gravy is love. Gravy takes time. And gravy has debris in it, goddammit.

No place else has a dedicated po-boy festival

It’s true that we have festivals celebrating pretty much everything here in NOLA... and, of course, that includes our local cuisine. The annual Oak Street Po-Boy Festival didn’t get up and running until a few years ago, but now, it’s difficult to imagine a New Orleans without this delightful celebration every fall (2016's will take place on Oct 23!). Upwards of 50,000 people attend this magical sandwich gathering each year, and they’re right to do so -- competing eateries are encouraged to get creative with their entries, and every festival inspires newer, crazier versions, from fried chicken livers to sashimi po-boys.

pop's poboys french fry poboy
<strong>Pop’s Poboys | </strong>Denny Culbert

We experiment (but do it right)

Speaking of creativity, local restaurateurs have a blast creating new versions of this storied classic. No matter what they pile into that French loaf, you know it’s going to be more amazing than any more "traditional" version you might find outside the city. Po-boy fillings in this town can include everything from french fries (with debris gravy, naturally) to whole soft-shell crabs. It’s truly something to behold, and an experience you can’t really find anywhere else.

Vietnamese po-boys are amazing

In other places (literally all other places), a French-style baguette loaded with ham, pork, mayo, pickled carrots & radishes, pate, chili sauce, and cilantro is known as a banh mi. But in NOLA, given our awesome Vietnamese population, it’s lovingly called a "Vietnamese po-boy." And we have them by the truckload, friends. There is only one alternative to traditional New Orleans French bread in town, and it is produced by the Dong Phuong bakery, which somehow manages to create a baguette soft enough for local palates, but with enough exterior integrity to hold about a million ingredients. It is a wonderful thing to behold.
 

It is the food of the people (ALL the people)

Not to get all Karl Marx on you, but did we not mention that this sandwich was created to feed striking streetcar employees? The politics of the po-boy are mostly relegated to history books these days, but the fact that it is beloved by generations of New Orleanians is something that you can’t help but notice here. This isn’t a sandwich just for the rich, and not just for the "po." We all enjoy po-boys (even our most prominent local chefs), in the same way that we all enjoy the Saints or Carnival season. It’s one of the many reasons this town is the place we love to love.
 

We dress them properly

OK, this is important: a real New Orleans po-boy can be filled with almost anything edible. HOWEVER, if you order that po-boy "dressed," it means that it will also contain lettuce (shredded iceberg, generally), tomatoes, pickles, and mayo (pronounced "mynez"). This is the first thing that Yankee eateries fail to understand when they decide to put ersatz po-boys on their menus. You can put chipotle aioli or pickled beets on your sandwich... but it won’t be a po-boy... period, end of story.

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Scott Gold is a writer in New Orleans whose last meal would be an oyster po-boy from Domilise's. Follow him on Twitter @scottgold.