When you open the door to Domilise's po-boy shop on the residential Uptown corner of Annunciation and Bellecastle streets, a gust of frying seafood smell charges out to remind you why you never want to live in any other city. Two steps inside, the first exchange you hear will probably go something like this one, overheard on a recent Saturday afternoon: "I've been eating here for 50 years, all my life!" says an exuberant female customer leaning over to watch another middle-age woman squirt hot sauce onto an oyster po-boy. "I've been working here all my life," replies the deadpan employee. Two much-older women working beside her laugh quietly, pensively, the way people laugh when a joke unexpectedly brings them nose to nose with the truth.
Or maybe these women simply didn't have time for a full-blown guffaw, what with another horde of customers pushing inside the single room, which is about as big as a one-car garage, and what with a reputation for feeding the community for more than 70 years to uphold.
A stack of numbered cards hangs on the wall just inside the door, next to a sign threatening that no po-boy order is guaranteed without one. No one notices the cards as far as I can tell. Instead, regular customers who know the routine -- and first-timers who follow them -- line up around the cramped open kitchen where cooks can only move in two directions, from the well-worn countertop to the stove area, and back.
The procession is reminiscent of the line that slithers along the painted yellow path inside Hansen's Sno-Bliz and the gaggle that waits in the heavy heat outside Franky and Johnny's on most evenings. You'll spot the same faces at all three beloved neighborhood joints. They flock to Hansen's for the cream of nectar syrup, to Franky and Johnny's for the crawfish pies and to Domilise's for a smile from owner Dot Domilise, for the store's inimitable old-time aura and for the po-boys made with untoasted Leidenheimer bread and served upon white paper plates.
Dot Domilise's late father-in-law first opened the business back when there was a store on every corner, she tells customers who ask as she places pickles onto sandwiches with a precision usually observed in cautious trainees, not bosses. Using a paring knife, she peels away the bright red casing that squeezes a cayenne pepper wiener, cradling the vaguely hot dog-ish sausage in her palm.
While Dot says that she ate one every day when she was younger, I've observed only one customer ordering a pepper wiener po-boy: me. I hereby propose a pepper wiener revival. Smothered in a thinnish, spicy beef chili, and squirted with both tart yellow and Creole mustards, Domilise's pepper wiener po-boy might be the best (it's certainly the hottest) chili dog available Uptown. And it's in keeping with everything else in the restaurant that's so outdated it's practically glamorous: the toothpicks pushed into empty Tabasco bottles, the faded beer can collection, the ventilation system from another era and the wall covered in newspaper clippings, custom-drawn cartoons and old photos. (Someone did think to update the prices, which range from $5 to $9 per po-boy.)
If you won't do the pepper wiener, the next-best option is an incendiary, hickory-smoked sausage with chili gravy. And next, lightly fried, salty shrimp with batter that puts up a good fight even once it cools. Walnut-brown fried oysters and catfish taste cleaner than they look. Turkey breast sliced to a see-through film makes a superbly messy po-boy that gushes both mustards and mayonnaise. Sweet barbecue beef po-boys (served Wednesdays and Saturdays only) are like chewy but fun Sloppy Joes. Avoid the absolutely flavorless roast beef, but ask for its thick gravy on anything.
The queue slides from the sandwich station on over to the drink bar, where proverbs of barroom bacchanalia hang on plaques and bumper stickers. "Great beer bellies are made -- not born!" and "Drink now ... avoid the holiday rush." Bottled Dixie and Miller tapped into frosty bowl-mugs are indeed in demand, but most customers follow the lead of a gray-haired bartender in blue jeans who reaches into the cooler to pull out his own bottle of Barq's. During 33 years at Domilise's, this kind-mannered man has acquired at least two devices to make his job less taxing: a piece of metal pipe pounded nearly flat at one end so that when the tab of a soda can slides inside, it can be wrenched downwards without smarting fingertips; and a wall-mounted aluminum can crusher whose little song of destruction assimilates with the tearing of Zapp's bags and the sputtering deep-fryer.
You'll know your sandwich is ready when a woman hollers, "Your sandwich is ready!", and you'll know where to sit because it will be the only seat available. There's a hand sink in one corner to wash clean anything the wispy napkins didn't catch; next to it a door sometimes opens onto Dot Domilise's tidy, rose-colored living room.
Some people can brag that they've eaten at Domilise's all their lives. Others are lucky enough to live there.
- Cheryl Gerber
- Right on the Dot: Time has been on the side of po-boy landmark DOMILISE'S and its smiling owner.