My first bite of a Bear's po-boy compelled me to bend one of my longtime rules of friendship: the one that forbids a friend from rubbing anything in with an "I told you so." If you grew up in the shadow of a younger and smarter sibling, you understand. One afternoon, a girlfriend who lives in Covington accompanied me on a Northshore po-boy tour. Before we started out, I was positive I knew of a roast beef po-boy that would rock her world; she was sure her favorite po-boy shop would top my pick. I went first. My friend ate the entire soaked half I bought her, politely commenting on the roast beef's striking onion tones. Then she drove me to Bear's, where one of the drippiest, most flavorful renderings of roast beef I can imagine brought me to my knees. When she blurted out the "I told you so," I could only wipe my chin and thank her.
Just half a sandwich, Bear's paper-wrapped bundle had the heft of Juan's Super burritos and the breadth of three Lucky Dogs. Unraveled, the toasted bread sighed under the weight of stacked meat and juice, liberating bunches of crepe-paper-thin beef from all sides. Peppery, with just a hint of onion and piled in more layers than a butter croissant, the crumpled beef trapped a liquid that earned the name "gravy" with flavor rather than viscosity.
The hush of rapt chewing stilled the air while we ate. A typical Bear's devotee minces no words over lunches listening to Paul Harvey's commentary, and I noted that everyone in the narrow room had developed a method for taming the unruly sandwiches. From prude to plumber, customers gracefully arranged fallen beef in one corner of paper, saving it for last like a lagniappe. Meanwhile, I flipped my sandwich upside-down so that the top bread, protected by the standard dressings, might hold up what the au jus-logged bottom could not. Overcome by the burden, the top also collapsed. I used seven of Bear's flimsy napkins to my girlfriend's every one; fortunately, I'm quite apt with the plastic fork.
Since then, I've taken up with a faction of po-boy connoisseurs that finds its Eden at Bear's. This group tackles its passion with the same fervor that late-night talk-show hosts devote to political scandals: the messier the better. At Bear's, toasted bread springs leaks for more than roast beef and gravy. A house recipe barbecue sauce, bottled and marketed locally by Sal & Judy's, soaks through their second-best selling po-boy. Laden with the same slow-roasted beef, this beautiful, soggy specimen tasted like it came from a cow reared in a smokehouse. Another heavyweight filling comprised homemade meatballs fused to a layer of meaty tomato sauce and cut to bite-size pieces. If Bear's stopped roasting beef tomorrow (heaven help us), these meatballs would keep them in business.
When even Bear's runner-up sandwiches enticed me to make unnecessary trips to Covington, I had to wonder whether my Barq's was spiked. Had Bear's charmed me with those standing Centipede and Ms. Pac Man video games I thought had gone the way of legwarmers and Jordache jeans? Or perhaps I was smitten by the country music station playing lyrics like "So you'll remember what I forgot to say ... tell yourself I love you."
Hardly. Each of the po-boys I tried truly held its own. Bacon-salty smoked ham caramelized on a hot griddle and slicked with a creamy layer of white cheese transformed a dressed bun into a personal fantasy of mine: a club sandwich minus the pressed turkey. Bite after bite, the thick paste of wrung-out roast beef debris spread on a French fry po-boy was the perfect condiment. Concentrated beef fragments mingled with mayonnaise like specks of chocolate birthday cake sopping up vanilla ice cream.
Since the kitchen automatically slathers French fry po-boys with debris, and since popcorn-addictive fried shrimp is the only seafood offered, Bear's 13 sandwiches are less welcoming to non-carnivores than most po-boy shops. (Hint for Orleanian veggies: Bear's is on the Northshore. No one you know will see you lapse.) French fries, chips, pepper-specked potato salad and gigantic home-baked cookies are the only side options.
Now a Covington legend, Bear's sprouted from a Bucktown sno-ball stand opened more than two decades ago by the parents of current owners Josh (Bear), Matt and Kelly Watson. In 1977, the Watsons moved their stand to the Northshore and busted out the po-boys. They upgraded to Bear's current location in 1989, detailing the Spartan space with marine-green plastic chairs, artificial plants and a few candy machines. Today, more Watson relatives rotate through Bear's ranks than most families have working members. And if the Watson's aren't a Northshore Brady Brunch, you wouldn't know it by their collective, affable demeanor.
Aside from the lucky folks already on the Northshore, all but the most devout foodies will find taking three-hour lunches for po-boys excessive. May I suggest a company field trip? Switching doctors to put Bear's on your route? After your first roast beef, give me a call. I'll have something to tell you.
- Cheryl Gerber
- Co-owner Kelly Watson and his family have been at BEAR'S current location in Covington since 1989.