Lovers of roast-beef sandwiches seek out Chicago’s Italian beef, Philadelphia’s cheesesteak, Southern California’s French dip, hot beef in the Upper Midwest, brisket in Jewish delis, wecks in Buffalo, and meat-stuffed onion rolls north of Boston. Least appreciated (outside Louisiana) but best of all is the roast-beef po’ boy. It does not seem exotic, and it doesn’t draw the attention bestowed on more distinctly regional Gulf Coast fried-seafood heros, which, at such exemplary New Orleans restaurants as Casamento’s and Domilise’s, deserve all the accolades they get. But a roast-beef po’ boy is as noteworthy as a muffuletta or an oyster loaf and among the finest sandwich-eating adventures you will ever experience.
Tracking down a roast-beef po’ boy can be a feat. And as is the case with so much Big Easy food (and culture), half the fun is the character of the place that dishes it out. For example, Parasol’s Restaurant & Bar, an Irish Channel corner bar, looks like the dive to end all dives. As we approach one evening, we are enveloped by the spilled-beer aroma emanating from the open front door, beyond which we spy a motley clientele of pickled neighborhood regulars who appear permanently attached to their barstools; peripatetic young grungies, drinks in hand, bouncing off each other like BrickBreaker pinballs; a policeman in uniform; and a handful of nicely suited white-collar types who have stopped in for a beer and a sandwich at the end of a long day. It is possible to eat at the bar, but to better focus on the food we walk to the rear and up a couple of stairs into an adjoining dining room. Near the stairs is a pass-through service window for getting drinks directly from the bar. Opposite that is a Dutch door to the kitchen, where we stand and consult with Ernest Augillard about what he is going to make us for dinner.
To competing blares of brass-band jazz on the sound system and the racket of the barroom, the man whom all know as Auggie moves around the small kitchen like a practitioner of modern dance. He uses the blade of his knife to measure out eight-inch lengths of wide-bodied French bread that get sliced lengthwise and toasted in the oven; while the bread heats, he worries hunks of beef that are braising and selects oysters that need to be breaded and fried. His shrimp po’ boy is especially good: Stuffed with firm-fleshed and vividly crisp fried shrimp, their golden coats glowing with a shot of hot pepper, it’s large enough for two. The roast-beef po’ boy is even bigger. Piled between halves of a warm loaf, preferably along with a full-dress complement of lettuce, tomato, pickle chips, and mayonnaise, it is a tidal wave of supple beef tatters soaked with garlicky pan-juice gravy. As we pick it up, dense clods of meat tumble out and juices gush. After only a few bites, what’s on the disposable plate is no longer a sandwich but rather a heap of beef, gravy, dressing, and sopping bread for which the meager plastic fork provided isn’t remotely adequate.
The roast-beef po’ boy at the Parkway Bakery & Tavern, near Bayou St. John, tastes more elegant than the one at Parasol’s but is even sloppier. It is presented tightly wrapped in a tube of butcher paper that is already mottled with gravy splotches when you pick it up at the kitchen window. A length of fresh, brawny bread is loaded with beef so tender that it seems not to have been sliced but rather hand-pulled, like fine barbecued pork, into myriad slivers, nuggets, and dainty clumps. It is difficult to discern where the meat ends and the gravy begins because there is so much gravy saturating the meat and so many carving-board scraps, known as debris (say “DAY-bree”), in the gravy.
The city’s ultimate dining bargain—$4.85 for a full-length sandwich, $3.65 for an eight-incher—is Parkway’s gravy po’ boy, a minimalist sandwich of good, chewy bread filled with only gravy. The bread is substantial enough to absorb massive amounts of the liquid, and its surface is crowded with debris that is the concentrated essence of roast beef.
We also recommend—don’t laugh—Parkway’s surf ’n’ turf po’ boy, a seemingly incongruous combo of spicy fried shrimp and beef with gravy. How the shrimp retain their crunch against the bovine stampede is a mystery, and while we’d never think to ask for a plate of Parkway’s fine fried shrimp topped with gravy, the odd duet sings harmoniously when packed into jaws of bread and accompanied by a salad’s worth of dressing garnishes.
Out in the Katrina-devastated parish of St. Bernard, the reborn Rocky and Carlo’s is a spacious eating hall with a full hot-lunch menu from which customers choose by walking along a cafeteria line. Here you pick up plates of pork chops with greens, veal parm, and stuffed peppers to carry to a table along with bottles of Barq’s root beer. The signature dish at Rocky and Carlo’s is not the po’ boy but baked macaroni and cheese, a creamy mountain of substantial perciatelli plastered with chewy orange cheese from the top, as well as crisp-webbed bark from the casserole’s edge. It is estimable mac ’n’ cheese as is, but those in the know order it dolled up. Topping choices are bright red marinara sauce and, better yet, the same glistening mahogany-brown gravy that crowns Rocky and Carlo’s roast-beef po’ boy, which is a custom dish, dressed as requested, its soft flaps of meat dolloped with as much gravy as you want.
Parasol’s Restaurant & Bar 2533 Constance St., New Orleans (504-897-5413)
Parkway Bakery & Tavern 538 Hagan Ave., New Orleans (504-482-3047)
Rocky and Carlo’s 613 W. St. Bernard Hwy., Chalmette, LA (504-279-8323)