As a cook and later chef de cuisine at RioMar for eight years, Benjamin Wicks had many opportunities to hear customers ooh and ah over the serrano-wrapped tuna he prepared, or the restaurant's rice and seafood dish cooked in black squid ink. Very rarely was there an opportunity for comparing such dishes to the version one customer grew up eating at home or the one advertised on TV commercials. But those are some of the pitfalls facing Wicks now that he's started his own venture, Mahony's Po-Boy Shop.
He left the exacting realm of fine dining for the fiercely opinionated, subjective and sometimes Balkanizing world of New Orleans po-boys.
Wicks does get exasperated at times when a customer walks in with the idea that he or she can order as one would at Subway, with its point and nod salad-bar line of sandwich toppings. Here you cannot have green peppers and American cheese on your veal Parmesan po-boy. And when someone orders a roast beef po-boy at Mahony's, and that someone can actually see and taste the bits of carrots lingering from the mirepoix Wicks uses in the roast, controversy may ensue if that does not jibe with the patron's Platonic ideal of the iconic New Orleans sandwich.
To doubters of Wicks' approach to po-boys, I say order the meatball version and then let's talk. I'm aware that in some households the composition and preparation of meatballs are more primed for debate than even roast beef po-boy recipes. Many mothers claim definitive meatball recipes, at least in the eyes of their children. Sorry mom, but Wicks' meatballs are my new favorite. He uses a lot of garlic, and the mixture of beef and pork sausage in each oversized orb plays out in beautifully distinct textures and flavor intensities. His sauce is rustic, chunky and laden with more bluntly pungent garlic slices.
This meatball po-boy is my favorite on Mahony's list, and it speaks to the chef's approach Wicks takes to comfort food. There's nothing too fancy going on, but the raw ingredients are clearly selected for quality and prepared with hands-on care. The roast beef comes in big, rough-hewn strands drenched in hearty gravy with vivid evidence of the red wine and vegetables that went into preparing it. Wicks glazes the local Chisesi-brand ham with root beer extract, and the flavor is subtle in edges of mellow vanilla sweetness.
I don't think that bacon and slices of cheddar improve the essential goodness of a fried oyster po-boy, and their presence in Mahony's "peacemaker" loaf didn't change my mind. The oysters are perfectly fine in crusty-fried cornmeal batter, and the fried shrimp are suitably large, airy and fresh-tasting. As offbeat po-boys go, the grilled shrimp, remoulade and fried green tomato combination was highly successful, with the shrimp charred and taut and the tomato crust pleasantly thick and nutty. Fried chicken livers stuff what can only qualify as an organ-meat enthusiast's po-boy, which is absurdly rich and mouth-coating.
An irresistible contribution from the fryer is Mahony's version of onion rings. These are not rings in any geometrical sense of the word, but rather exquisitely thin ribbons of fried onion. They should be eaten by hand but can actually be twirled on a fork like the spaghetti they resemble. Another good side order is the Creole potato salad, which is cubic rather than merely chunky. The potatoes and eggs are cut larger than casino dice and tied together with Creole mustard, slivers of pickled jalapeño and fresh herbs.
Mahony's is another in the growing roster of restaurants to take on the cochon de lait po-boy, made popular at Jazz Fest by Walker's Southern Style Bar-B-Que. Nobody has been able to hit it quite like Walker's, and that includes Mahony's most recent attempt. The pork lacked both the smoky flavor and juiciness of that high standard. The sheer quantity was admirable, but overall the sandwich was dry in a way the crunchy slaw topping didn't completely redeem. The turkey followed the same more-is-more approach, but with better results. Rather than the typical deli case slices, it's evident from the big, flaky pieces of meat that this turkey was cut from a whole roasted bird.
To open Mahony's, Wicks and his business partner Arthur Murray took over the location that had been Winnie's Artsy Café, a whimsical sandwich shop with a phantasmagoric interior décor. Just about anything would be stark by comparison, and until Mahony's has a chance to weather its fresh drywall and framed artwork a bit, its long, handsome bar of salvaged cypress and its Abita beer taps are the prime source of atmosphere. The two tables on the high front porch are great, shaded perches for dining when the weather is nice.
There's a friendliness in the operation that speaks to its foundation as a family affair. The chef's mother is frequently there helping out. But the Wicks family ambassador most often encountered is the chef's grandmother, Judy, a diminutive, soon-to-be 80-year-old Japanese woman who seems able to haul half her weight in po-boys, onion rings and iced tea around the room in a single trip.
- Cheryl Gerber
- At Mahony's, chef/proprietor Benjamin Wicks (left) serves unique po-boy options with the help of his grandmother Judy Sekinger and co-owner Arthur Murray.