Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Po'Boy Perfection



For all the grief my nomadic lifestyle has caused my parents, it is only fair to say that I learned the ways of small time exploring from my mother. I was fortunate enough to be born to two working professionals who regularly were able to take a family of five on vacations. We were the Asian-American answer to National Lampoon's Family Vacation, but instead of Chevy Chase we had my mother, a small but mighty Asian woman who speaks (amongst other languages) broken Spanish, and has the ability to eat just about anything. I have memories of driving over the border from California to Mexico, my mom forcing my dad to pull over at the sight of a working-class man on the side of the street, asking politely and loudly in Spanish, "Excuse me, where do the locals eat?" On one such occasion we ended up at a non-resort, sea-side restaurant overlooking a visible rat corridor to the ocean, where some of the largest, most delicious lobsters were served. Then and every occasion after, we were the only non-Mexicans in that restaurant. Low on fancy, high on tasty, that was how my parents fed us.

I've adopted my mother's tactics wholeheartedly. In my quest for the ultimate po' boy sandwich here in New Orleans, naturally I turned to Rick, the plumber of my apartment building. He's a second generation plumber, millionth generation New Orleanian, and will show you the tatooed portrait of his daughter on his arm when you ask about his family. So when I saw him the other day fixing my gas, I enlisted his aid in my po'boy task. "Where do the locals eat?" I asked him.

The po' boy is native to Louisiana. Resembling a submarine sandwich, it distinguishes itself by using only crusty French bread, and often incorporating deep fried seafood. Typically they are gargantuan. Some claim that the po'boy earned its name as the meal of the working man, or poor boy, which translates to po' boy in Louisianan. Others claim that the words are a bastardization of the French words "pour boire" supposedly meaning peace offering. Under that version men would supposedly bring home these peacemakers to their wives after a long night of drinking and cavorting. Personally, I'm not sure if anything could bring me peace if my man came home blatto after an evening of womanizing. But if there was, the po'boy might be one of them.

At Rick's suggestion I head out to Parkway Bakery in the Mid-City neighborhood with my friend Joe. Despite its reputation as the preeminent po'boy spot, the restaurant has retained a rustic character, and not the Disneyland renovation kind, which is also common in New Orleans. The building itself is tucked away next to a NAPA autoparts repair shop, and back a bit so that its sign is only really visible to those are are looking specifically for it. And of course, it is a family establishment. Joe and I walk in and see a man in his fifties at the counter taking orders. I am ready almost immediately.

"I'll take the regular shrimp, dressed, and with a soda."
"Ok. Is that all?"
"No, I'm taking care of his too."
"Oh, well take your time sir," he says to Joe. He then looks at me and says, "You, you're ready because your hungry."
"Yeah well she just came from her boxing class. She worked up a good appetite," explains Joe.
"Yeah? You box?"
"Trying to," I answer.

The man then goes into a diatribe about the mysterious left-handed boxers, "Those south paws are like secret weapons." He and Joe reminisce about Joe Frazier, Cassius Clay (yeah, he's one of those), and good ol' Rocky Marciano. I'm sorta laughing at the ancient nature of this conversation but ever so happy to learn even just a little more about my new favorite hobby. He asks my weight, which, in this context, I don't take personally, and we discuss the welterweight, the middle-weight, and the likelihood of me getting punched in the face. After a little more of this, he says,
"What's your name? You know what? I'll call you Rocky. They'll call you when your order is ready."

Joe and I share a table with two middle-aged African-American women. From our seats we have a perfect view of the pick-up counter, behind which is a bustling kitchen with at least 10 staff scurrying away in a po-boy work trance. The call out "Rocky" to which I respond, picking up two "regular" sandwiches, each about 5 inches long, and a heaping "side order" of fries, topped with chunks of roast beef and lathered with gravy. The women next to us ask about the fries and we insist they try some, which they do. My sandwich is stuffed to the gills with golden-fried shrimp, touched with lettuce, tomato, and mayonnaise. As I eat the sandwich shrimp are spilling out, providing enough on the plate for a whole other sandwich. Joe gets the roast beef po'boy topped with more gravy. Joe and I finish the fries, and take half of our sandwiches home. Drinks and all food put us out $23.00 total.

We say our good-byes to the man at the counter and to our new friends with whom we shared the fries, and head out with smiles on our faces. Like many of my memorable New Orleans moments, I walk away charmed by the personalities and my belly stuffed to the seams with good food. This is where the locals eat.

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