Updated: Apr 10, 2020
It's common lore that the po-boy got its name from the Martin Bros. who left the streetcar conductor life to open a corner store near the French Market. They claim the sandwiches were offered in solidarity to their striking union brothers in 1929 as a way to feed the "poor boys" out of work, but the jury is still out. What is confirmed, however, is that Americans have regional sandwiches all over the country- as the workforce became more labor-focused and industrialized, lunches and breaks got shorter and easy to transport sandwiches became a favorite grab-n-go way to make it through the day! Another origin story dates back to the 1800s. Oysters were once a cheap bar snack (the buffalo wings of old) and so working husbands who dallied at the bar too long after work would bring home a "peace offering" to their grumpy wives (who probably were pissed they spent some of the payday funds at the bar) in the form of an "oyster loaf". Take out boxes were not a thing yet, so instead, barkeeps stuffed fried oysters into hollowed out french bread loaves and wrapped them in newspaper- once home it made an easy dinner and delicious treat to keep the men out the doghouse. The "Peacemaker" (La Médiatrice) was a combo of fried shrimp & oysters that kept the peace in more ways than one!
Other facts about the po-boy, even how to spell it, get messy and about as clear as gravy. First off: sizes vary, but a french bread loaf is 32", so sandwiches hover around 8" (a quarter of a loaf) to 10" (about 1/3 of a loaf). This ain't Subway. Another term that weirds out tourists? Debris! Ordering a roast beef po-boy that has "debris" means the meat will come smothered in the tasty gravy & juices from the pot. Get LOTS of napkins. My favorite way to test the mettle of any po-boy shop is to try their roast beef. As unique as a fingerprint, the roast beef po-boy is a messy act of mouth bliss. It should be chunks of simmered beef sitting in a time-tested recipe of juices and seasonings. (If the roast beef seems like it's just deli meat sliced thick and slathered with glossy packaged gravy, you should find a hungry stray dog to give it to). My favorite way to roast beef is dressed with creole mustard and pickles- the acidity balances out the rich meaty goodness!
Recommendations: Always changing and developing, inventive chefs are creating new po-boys and our vibrant Vietnamese community has taken off with po-boy twists on the traditional Bahn Mi. A classic po-boy is a food that is meant to be affordable and for the working class- corner stores like Fradys One Stop, dive bars like Parasol's and Liuzza's, a no-frills po-boy place like Domilise's are what you're looking for. Seafood po-boys are prefect from spots like R&Os and other spots that have seafood platters that look like they feed a family of 5. Basically anywhere that looks sit-down fancy IS NOT where you score a quality po-boy. Wanna get a unique po-boy? Try Killer PoBoys and Bahn Mi Boys. Also, a great opportunity to try lots of creative po-boys is at the Oak Street PoBoy Fest (https://www.poboyfest.com/ stay tuned for the 2020 date, but it's usually in Oct).