Listening to a regular order a po-boy at his favorite shop can sound like a pool shark calling out a complex bank shot. "Turkey, grilled, mustard, no mayo, tomatoes, no lettuce, pepper Jack cheese," you might hear, or "six-inch oyster, butter the bread, just pickles." But at the Grocery, a spare, friendly sandwich shop on the edge of the Garden District, there's a different type of play going on, and it's all about the sandwich press.
Pressing down a sandwich on a griddle is not exactly revolutionary. Back home, we weighed down tuna melts with cans of soup or beans as they cooked, and the popularity of panini-style grills has ensured the same basic technique is more prevalent than ever. But the Grocery deserves credit for putting a New Orleans spin on a national trend and making it the centerpiece of its business.
That decision turned an ordinary list of po-boys into an interesting selection of new variations on old favorites. On their own, the thin sheets of meat and unremarkable gravy juicing up the roast beef po-boy here do not put it in a league with the city's heavy hitters in that category, like Parasol's, Parkway Bakery, Radosta's or Ignatius Eatery. But add the work of the press, and it becomes something else altogether, something quite unlike the standard roast beef po-boy you can find just about anywhere.
It comes down to the bread, and the way our unique New Orleans po-boy loaves respond to the press. Leidenheimer Baking Co. supplies the Grocery with its iconic French bread, with its crackly crust and airy interior crumb. Normally prized for its absorbency and ability to constrain massive amounts of gravy and mayonnaise, the pressing process so thoroughly compresses that luxuriant, soft bread body that it ends up as thin as a pita and dense as a cracker. You can press a lot of other breads and wind up with something a little crisper, firmer and warmer. Pressing New Orleans po-boy bread transforms it completely.
This new texture works wonders on roast beef, ham and cheese and the pastrami or corned beef po-boy options, but at the Grocery it shines the brightest with the house rendition of the muffuletta. Built on French bread in the manner of the Frenchuletta from Liuzza's Restaurant & Bar, this muffuletta starts out differently anyway. Purists who reject the notion of a heated muffuletta should steer clear, of course, but others will appreciate how the pressing gets the oils from the cheese, olive salad and meats going beneath the shell of warm bread and crisps the edges of ham and salami escaping at the margins.
Pressed po-boys at the Grocery also benefit from an enthusiastic impresario singing their praises at the cash register. What boxing terror-turned-pitchman George Foreman is for the line of tabletop grills bearing his name, the Grocery proprietor Gene Sabre is for the pressed po-boy.
Sabre and his wife Marcy McCall have been running the Grocery since 2003. The previous owners had their own array of sandwiches and developed a major specialty with the classic Cuban and a few other variations using the press. Sabre and McCall took the idea and ran with it. Today, they'll press just about anything on the menu except the soups and salads.
Some nice touches include housemade sauces and dressings, like the Russian dressing for the Reuben or the cilantro mayonnaise gracing a club sandwich made with spicy boiled shrimp. Marinated tomatoes add some heft to a few vegetarian options, along with enough cheese and avocado to make a filling lunch. Some of the combinations are more creative than satisfying, though. The Avenue special, for instance, is a confusion of warmed-up chicken salad studded with sliced grapes, also warm, and big walnut pieces, plus bacon and avocado. Together, they all felt like mismatched prisoners under the pressed bread rather than happy conspirators of alternating texture.
As fond as I am of most of the pressed sandwiches, the Grocery is also a great place to stop in for a quick cup of gumbo. Thick as jambalaya, bulging with brick-red, tight-skinned sausage and atomized bits of chicken, it has a thin, orange-colored roux with a mellow, toasty flavor. While the pressed sandwiches can take a while to prepare, the gumbo is served instantly, ladled up from one or two pots sitting casually over the burners of a regular household range just behind the cash register.
This modest piece of cooking equipment would be at home in any college apartment, and Sabre jokes that it's his Easy-Bake Oven. But good things come off of it nonetheless, and all the other soups I've tried here have been winners. In particular, a bisque was brimming with the fresh taste of corn kernels popping under the teeth and cut through with something that tastes like a ripple of sherry. The cold pasta salad is also very good, with lots of black olives and black pepper giving it a salty, pungent bite.
Don't forgo the simple pleasures of the cookie jar and the brownie plate at the counter. In particular, the chocolate chip brownies are dense, chewy and succulently rich rather than shockingly sweet.
- Cheryl Gerber
- Gene Sabre, proprietor of the Grocery, and one of his "pressed po-boys."