A white, northern-pointing arrow is suspended from a tilting frame of metal rods at the corner of Tchoupitoulas and Antonine streets. Loud red letters announce "PO BOYS" on both sides of the arrow, and the confident red point and tail fins resemble a rocket's. It's as if the sign means to launch the very idea of po-boys deep into the adjacent Uptown neighborhood. Or does it mean to launch you?
The arrow's target, Barcia's Grocery, waits one block down Antonine Street, in a neighborhood where vacant lots are mown, where school kids toot trombones in the street and where the incessant traffic buzz of Tchoupitoulas Street sounds like one long sigh. It's the sort of neighborhood where you would expect to find an old-time corner store producing memorable sandwiches. Barcia's, founded by the late Henry Barcia 50 years ago, is old-time. His daughters, Ann and Rosalie Organo (they married brothers), don't want anything to change, including the graying "4-X Pilsner Beer" clock that several customers have begged to buy.
Taffy, Sugar Daddy candy, crayons and spiral-bound notebooks stock a display case of stained wood and glass just inside the entrance -- an indication that children's need for immediate gratification is at least as old as the grocery. Moving around the case, you meet a clunky, antique-looking register. It doesn't do math anymore, but the Organo sisters still store money in it, letting an electric adding machine do the thinking. When it's time to pack an order of sandwiches or groceries, they reach for paper bags stored in a compartmentalized metal cage above the register. It's difficult to explain why this archaic storage system is so cool, but sitting at one of the tables nursing a bottle of Barq's, I find myself impatient for the next moment when the cashier will reach up, yank down and bag with an unconscious fluidity that only decades of practice can produce.
A refrigerated case storing meats and cheeses sits beside the register, and on top of that rests a shiny white scale with the red cursive lettering, "Sliced Meats -- tasty, tempting, ready to serve." Unusually ripe tomatoes always seem to gather in still-life beside the scale, waiting to be sliced and slipped into a sandwich.
With any luck it will be the club sandwich, its double-decker quarters wedged side-by-side into a clear plastic box for a snug, puzzle-like fit. There's nothing extraordinary about this club sandwich, except that it's just right: toasted white bread gone slightly limp from mayonnaise, snappy bacon, sliced white turkey and ham, crisp lettuce and luscious tomato. A BLT and then some.
Like much of its sandwich clientele -- longshoremen, riverfront workers and construction crews -- Barcia's is an early riser. Hot sandwiches are only available until 1:30-or-so p.m. I discovered the second-best sandwich much earlier than that: smoked sausage links and thin sheets of scrambled egg folded like linens, all between a seeded bun. With bottled water, the morning paper and a bottomless Styrofoam cup of thin coffee, this breakfast sandwich cost $5 even.
Barcia's po-boys are made with untoasted Leidenheimer bread, the ends of which fill a tub on one of the grocery shelves, possibly waiting to become bread pudding. And they come wrapped in light-pink paper twisted on the ends like a candy wrapper. Patton's hot and salty sausage patties, soft on the inside and blackened at the fringe, make a terrific po-boy that's equally suited to tough guys at breakfast and the rest of the neighborhood at lunch.
The rest of the neighborhood could include the boy with the spiky Mohawk, the man who came in just for cups of ice from the ice machine, the kid home sick from school eating lunch with his mother, and the kid's teacher, who also dropped by for lunch and busted the sick kid having lunch with his mother. Customers who eat po-boys here tend to ignore the groceries, and vice versa.
There's an informal edict among po-boy huntsmen that each po-boy purveyor has one or two specialties, and that it's usually best not to stray from that expertise. Such is the case with Barcia's deli-treatment roast beef po-boy, which is drenched in garlicky gravy but made with rubbery meat sliced from a processed loaf. And the one time I tried a seafood po-boy -- offered only on Fridays -- the fried shrimp had been out of the heat so long they had a chill. Inquire about unadvertised food, like the decent, sausage-heavy red beans I learned about from another Monday customer and the stuffed artichokes I once spotted alongside boxes of Popeye's fried chicken (not for sale) through the glass doors of a refrigerated case.
Barcia's arrow sign didn't always exist. It didn't even exist a year ago when I was driving from Parasol's to Domilise's, oblivious to this grocery smack dab in between the two. New Orleans is small enough that food gossips can raise even the most deeply buried bars and neighborhood restaurants to cult status. Occasionally, however, a bold new sign is the most reliable informant.
CORRECTION: In my review of Kelsey's Restaurant ("Two Out of Three," May 20), I misstated the ingredients in the dish Eggplant Kelsey. The oysters and shrimp that top the fried eggplant are sauteed, not fried. My apologies.
- Cheryl Gerber
- Fifty-year-old BARCIA'S GROCERY is an old-time Uptown corner store producing memorable sandwiches.