Centuries from now, when the study of po-boys is more an archeological pursuit than a pilgrimage of the belly, written evidence of the flashier versions -- the barbecue shrimp roll at Liuzza's by the Track, the breakfast po-boy at Elizabeth's, the roasted duck slammer at Crabby Jack's -- may well overshadow the thousands of late po-boy shops that, like oldies radio stations, only ever served the classics. When virtually every corner grocery has the same po-boy inventory, it's human nature to eulogize the unique.
But eulogizing the unique should never come at the expense of recognizing a gold standard. At the refurbished Parkway Bakery & Tavern, which reopened in December after eight dark and crumbly years, a po-boy is a po-boy. I've heard customers special order fried onions on their catfish and bacon with their fried oysters, but there are no tricks on the official menu card, a standard collection of fried seafood, roast beef, ham and turkey. While New Orleanians enjoy an abundance of such straightforward sandwich outlets, this one exhibits a fervor for the tried and true po-boy shop formula that's utterly convincing.
This fervor reaps fortunate results in the kitchen. The messy roast beef po-boy, its delicate slices falling to pieces in a brown, salty gravy, is one-dimensional in the best dimension: beef. Proprietor Jay Nix says that his cooks season the chuck roasts with garlic and onion powders, but not much. He prefers roast beef to taste like itself. It's not necessary to have eaten at the original Parkway Bakery, whose life spanned a majority of the previous century, to know that Parkway's roast beef tastes just like it used to. All the old regulars, who are regulars again, testify as much. One night, a mature couple hauled up the steps to the back dining room at an hour when most mature couples are either turning on the late news or turning over in bed. "We had to have a roast beef," one of them shrugged.
While a certain amount of nostalgia probably augments one's appreciation of Parkway's roast beef, the fried oysters are the snoozers. From the first-rate oyster supplier P&J's, and fried to order, they're often brackish and lately have been two-mouthful monsters. Whether crunchy battered or bean bag-floppy (the kitchen is still honing its consistency), they're only bettered by sandwiching inside a Leidenheimer loaf with shredded lettuce, thin-sliced tomato and enough mayonnaise to warrant a dietary warning.
Flame-orange hot sausage patties may be spare in chile heat, but their fantastic saltiness is as potent as cayenne. Fans of the old Parkway reminisce about its grilled ham and cheese sandwiches. For a winning reproduction, ask for Chisesi ham fried on the griddle until the edges brown and curl; a creamy white cheese liquefied on top doesn't exactly pass for Swiss, but it passes. Only hamburgers and grilled chicken salads aren't fit for the history books. The former are garden variety and the latter are too literal to be poetic: chopped romaine, cubed chicken breast and pre-fab dressing.
Parkway is as much a museum as it is a po-boy tavern, and Nix, a contractor by trade, is a born curator. When history filters through his vision and his hands, it emerges in the present distilled -- as sharp and clean as a favorite memory. The Timothy Family operated Parkway from 1922 to 1995, baking their own bread until a flood damaged the brick ovens in the 1970s. Nix used some of the retired oven bricks in his renovation -- your feet rest on them when you sit at the bar. The bar itself is a grand wooden structure of dark paint and decorative carvings that appears to have been excavated from some ancient watering hole; Nix actually designed and built it himself. He could charge a fee for non-eating customers who come just to peruse the antique wall memorabilia hung with a contractor's precision, from the Woolworth's luncheonette billboard to the old Roosevelt Hotel menu.
This is also a museum for the region's ongoing, edible history, a place where brand names such as Barq's, Blue Plate, Zapp's and Leidenheimer's are hallowed. Hubig's pies are the only dessert, and just stepping inside the corner door seems to arouse hunger for one. Three weeks ago, as the breeze off Bayou St. John poured through the open windows, a man purchased the entire stock of sweet potato pies. "I gotta get these while sweet potatoes are still in season," he explained. "It's almost time for strawberry."
In its heyday, Parkway served as a cafeteria for workers at the American Can Company, visible and now refurbished across the bayou. The public space was smaller then and was never air-conditioned. The sanitation standards inspired stories of "roach beef" that persist today. In contrast, Nix's Parkway is tidier than your grandma's sitting room. The mustard-yellow exterior shines. The frosty pony glasses are spotless. Employees singing along to Dean Martin wipe even the outdoor seats to a polish. But somehow it still feels crumbly. Nix, the always-working ghost of po-boys past and present, frequently says so himself: "The spirit of the old place is still in here. You can feel it."
- Cheryl Gerber
- PARKWAY BAKERY & TAVERN proprietor Jay Nix has evolved from contractor to curator in lovingly restoring the old po-boy shop's location.