Anyone who has tried to ferry a po-boy much farther than from the service counter to the table knows this most distinctive New Orleans sandwich doesn't travel well. Because it's to be eaten immediately, even the most delicious po-boy can turn into a mess of soggy bread, cold gravy and mushy fried seafood if neglected for any amount of time.
Fortunately, the people who make po-boys are more resilient than their creations. After Katrina forced an exile of weeks or months, they are returning to reestablish one of the city's great culinary traditions. Getting back to business is vital for their finances, but to hear some of the city's po-boy purveyors talk, it seems that satisfying personal appetites long denied by the dearth of po-boys outside New Orleans is also a priority.
"My family's been living in Hammond since we lost our houses in Lakeview, and I have to tell you the bread up there is just horrible; what they call a po-boy loaf is like a glorified hotdog bun," says Mike Serio, owner of Mike Serio's Deli in the Central Business District, which reopened in October. "The first loaf I got my hands on (upon reentry), I tore into it like an animal, I ate half the loaf dry it was so good."
The bread that received such ravaging in Serio's hands comes from Leidenheimer Baking Co., the 109-year-old Central City bakery that was able to deliver its first post-Katrina loaves on Oct. 9.
"We received letters from people at the bakery thanking us profusely for getting our product back and allowing them to indulge in one of their favorite things: making a po-boy at home or having one at their neighborhood po-boy shop," says Leidenheimer owner Sandy Whann.
The day that Leidenheimer started selling po-boy loaves again was the day Parasol's Restaurant and Bar resumed serving its legendary roast beef po-boys. The Irish Channel tavern was one of the first po-boy shops to reopen, and it was greeted with much praise from neighborhood regulars.
"We have the same beef, the same gravy -- only I think it's better than before because now there's a little extra TLC in there," says bar manager Debbie Shatz.
The menu at Parasol's is shorter now, which is a common condition at restaurants of all stripes around town. The issue is usually staffing, with po-boy shop owners often finding themselves on their own.
Guy's Po-Boys owner Marvin Matherne was wondering how he would open his Magazine Street shop without any help when a neighbor walked past on the sidewalk and, learning of his quandary, volunteered on the spot to help. When she left a week later for a FEMA job, another neighbor volunteered to help. Later still, a regular customer's daughter took over the shift, answering phones and running the register while Matherne cooked.
"This was not a career move for any of these people, believe me," says Matherne. "They're neighbors helping me out who want to get New Orleans rolling again, and po-boys is New Orleans."
Proprietress Dot Domilise has been busy herself slinging the gravy and fried shrimp at the Uptown po-boy shop that bears her family name. Domilise's Po-Boys, which dates back to 1926, reopened the week before Thanksgiving and witnessed scenes not unlike a family gathering in its small, vintage dining room. "A lot of folks were here for the holiday, even people who aren't living back in town yet, so we had a lot of people in here getting their first po-boys since the storm," says Domilise.
Johnny Majoria has most of his immediate family working now behind the counter at Commerce Restaurant, which he founded in the CBD in 1965. Still, the lack of staff means the menu has to be short and quick to prepare, he says, so all the daily plate lunches have yielded exclusively to po-boys. The influx of out-of-town workers and Latino labor crews has altered the demographics of the restaurant's normal downtown customer base of office workers and cops, but Majoria and his family are getting an assist in the transition from Axl Frederick, an aspiring filmmaker from Venezuela currently working a construction job at a nearby hotel. During the lunch rush, Frederick helps translate local sandwich peculiarities such as "dressed or undressed" for the restaurant's spike in Spanish-speaking customers.
Around the corner at the legendary Mother's Restaurant, some translation is required even for new customers who thought they had English pretty well in hand before arriving in New Orleans. Contractors are here encountering "debris" that for once doesn't mean moldy drywall and splintered furniture, but rather the 67-year-old restaurant's singular hash of beef trimmings and gravy used in po-boys.
Nostalgia is getting a second serving at Parkway Bakery & Tavern in Mid-City, where proprietor Jay Nix is reviving the ancient New Orleans po-boy shop for the second time in as many years. Originally opened in 1922, the place closed without ceremony in 1995. Nix, a contractor, bought and completely renovated the building, decorated it with old photos and pennants from defunct local high schools and reopened it as a po-boy shop and bar late in 2003. Though his shop was flooded by Katrina, Nix is preparing to reopen Parkway, serving roast beef po-boys in the bar as renovations continue in the rear dining room.
Nix plans to reopen in time for the shop's second anniversary party on Sunday, Dec. 18, when Benny Grunch & the Bunch are scheduled to perform. An updated version of the song "Ain't Dere No More," Grunch's paean to bygone local brand names and traditions, is likely to be on the play list. But with hard work and loyal customers, owners of many local po-boy shops are making sure their names won't be in that number.