When a paper towel roll is provided at a seafood boil, you know you have a practical host. When you find the same roll on the table at a po-boy joint, you know you need to order the roast beef.
That tipoff is a little redundant at Bear's Po-boys. This restaurant name has long been synonymous with dripping, overstuffed roast beef po-boys thanks to a string of related but independently run locations on the Northshore. In 2010, a branch quietly opened in Metairie, taking over the attached dining room at Gennaro's, a neon-trimmed, Depression-era barroom practically underneath the Causeway Boulevard overpass.
The beef is cut thin, carrying a little onion flavor, a bit of pepper and a full meaty taste that sounds elementary but cannot always be taken for granted. It's awash with something like debris jus — wet, salty and full of tiny bits of beef — and a lavish quantity of mayo. The crackly-crusted Leidenheimer loaf does its best to hold the juicy mess, but diners will be glad those paper towels are at hand.
Bear's debris is available on more than the po-boys. It goes over cheese fries and it's layered on a specialty burger, acting less as a topping and more as an equal partner to the patty. The burger list provides the other compelling reason to visit this Bear's. These sturdy burgers come in all kinds of double-barrel combinations, from hot sausage and grilled onions to bacon and peanut butter (a strangely apt burger topping) to fried jalapeno rings and a dose of spicy, sweet, hickory-tinged barbecue sauce.
The array of add-ons and sides invites many departures from po-boy shop standards. Blue cheese on your oyster po-boy? That's an easy request to fulfill. Fried jalapenos and a teacup-size side order of debris can transform just about anything, and when dumped on a basket of burly, ruffle-cut potato chips (called "Bear chips") they essentially create roast beef potato nachos.
The undersized, overly greasy fried shrimp I tried were beyond redemption, however, and the salads make for just as utilitarian a meal as someone who orders salad at a po-boy joint deserves. There's only one dessert, but it's a keeper: white chocolate bread pudding made from yesterday's po-boy loaves.
Bear's is packed at lunchtime and slower in the evenings, but service is consistently attentive, welcoming and genuine. Bear's serves in the barroom too, in case you prefer your roast beef with a haze of Marlboro smoke and a game of eight-ball. The restaurant is family-friendly, and there's a children's menu with chicken tenders and such, which makes me wonder at what age New Orleans kids are entrusted with their own roast beef po-boy. They might make a mess of it, but at Bear's they surely won't be the only ones.