When the telephone rings at Guy's Po-Boy's, owner Marvin Matherne grabs it from the wall next to his post at the deep fryer in the open kitchen. That is, unless the UPS driver milling behind the counter answers it first. It could be the UPS boss -- the one who calls often to leave messages with Marvin for the drivers who congregate in the 25-seater restaurant. They talk sports, swap address war stories and hassle the only postman they even allow in the door. But none of that happens until much later in the day.
At 9 a.m., it's Marvin's sister Shelly who answers the phone. She comes in to get him through the lunchtime push. Sometimes she scribbles the daily specials on the blackboard; other days, there's no time. Most of the customers know them by heart anyway, and many regulars don't even mention food. Like Galactic's band members, who created their own po-boy: grilled shrimp and catfish with Swiss and cheddar cheese. Marvin, who bought the place from Guy Barcia seven years ago, just looks up and puts the usual order into his rotation. Customers familiar with Marvin's whims ask him to cook off the menu, like the UPS driver who likes scrambled eggs. Marvin loves that part of his job, which also becomes more apparent as the day grows longer.
At 11 a.m., Shelly arranges the chips and stocks the sodas until the uniforms begin to file in five minutes later: customs officials, cable guys and a Kentwood water delivery person who passes up the Aquafina in the cooler for two bottles from his own stash. Four hardhats each order large ham po-boys and park themselves next to a creaky fan that's as dusty as they are. At a neighboring table, I hear parents break it to their 5-year-old that he needs eyeglasses over bottles of Barq's as I dig into the long, hollow macaroni noodles stretched between hot cheddar cheese on Thursday's Salisbury steak plate. The savory "steak" of finely ground beef, herbs, bright onion flavor and a cap of gravy tastes a lot like the two luscious meatballs that flanked my pile of broken spaghetti on Wednesday. The pasta, a UPS driver's recommendation, had nice heat and a smoky depth explained by black burnt flecks, which might have gone unnoticed if I hadn't scorched enough tomato sauces to know better.
At 1 p.m., Marvin's right-hand man, Troy, steps outside with the trash and waves to a friend at the bus stop across the street. Inside, Marvin talks shop with a visitor sitting on the kitchen's prep table, legs swinging. I, meanwhile, order a catfish po-boy for a "vegetarian" companion and one for myself, featuring tender, pull-apart beef, two fried eggs over hard, crispy fried onions and that little extra mayo that can turn a decent sandwich into a great po-boy.
I first learned about Guy's as a New Orleans neophyte from a local's po-boy spiel: roast beef at Domilise's, ham at Mother's, shrimp at Louisiana Seafood Exchange and thick, flaky, lightly fried catfish with a handful of peppery seasoning at Guy's. It pays to take advice from those in the know when it comes to inexpensive neighborhood joints. Except, I discovered, for the fried potato po-boy I bravely ordered at Guy's instead. There's nothing spectacular about the fries -- they were lifeless on Tuesday's pork chop plate -- but with all that mayo it's like an order of Belgian frites on Bender bread with pickles. I recovered from that first one on my back, on the floor, for 30 minutes before I could move again.
A flattened Cajun-seasoned fried chicken breast and the dry, stretchy roast beef po-boys (UPS recommended) are two of the most coveted at Guy's, but there's another one I can't forget. Small shrimp tossed around on the flat top grill with heaps of Cajun seasoning make a remoulade out of the mayonnaise-laden "grilled" shrimp po-boy. It debuted as a special before earning a permanent position on the blackboard. While Guy's has the flair of one of those old-time, dressed-down neighborhood joints, it's not a sleeper. Marvin notices what his customers like to eat and adjusts his menu accordingly. One Monday, tired of his red beans with sausage, which he serves in a thick, spiced gravy every week, he also cooked up a pot of equally delicious, buttery white butter beans topped with sliced honey-sweet ham. When I couldn't decide which to order, he offered me samples of both and toasted me with one of his own.
That was at 3 p.m., the hour of the UPS drivers. Nearly every day, five trucks crowd narrow Valmont Street between 3 p.m. and 4 p.m. Anxious customers in the neighborhood come by the restaurant to retrieve packages. With those brown shorts and all that leg, it's a wonder the Uptown girls haven't overtaken Guy's like the deliverymen did five years ago. "He's our boy," one of them says, claiming Marvin. This is the hour when Marvin is happiest. "I don't do it for the money," he tells me, "I do it for the friends."