Tue 4 May 2010
When traveling for work, food can often be an afterthought. You can’t control where and when you’re going, and chances are your meals will be dictated by the schedule of the conference or activity that brought you there in the first place. So you make your peace with a couple of grab-and-go meals and you hope for a decent dinner or two along the way.
Unless, of course, you’re headed to a foodlovers’ Mecca like New Orleans. Whether you crave high-end cuisine or down-and-dirty dining, New Orleans has you covered (and then some). As the great philosopher Axl Rose once said, “If you’ve got the money, honey, we’ve got your disease.” With this much great food all around, you find a way to eat well while you’re in town.
I wanted to make the most of my meals, so I decided to focus on three New Orleans specialties: the po’ boy, the muffuletta and the Sazerac cocktail. The first two are ubiquitous sandwiches that can be found in varying forms throughout the Crescent City. The latter is the cocktail by which I judge most bartenders – and it was first concocted in New Orleans.
But I couldn’t settle for just one version of these delicacies…the debate over who does them best is fiercely partisan and it just wouldn’t do to sample a po’ boy from Mother’s without also trying the one at Domilise. Sure, the Central Grocery muffuletta is the original, but what’s with all the fuss over Verdi Marte’s hot version? And whose Sazerac would be my new gold standard?
I would have to try a few of each, in the name of science, of course. The things I do for this blog…
I’ve heard plenty of explanations for how the po’ boy got its name, but they all boil down to feeding a whole lot of people a whole lot of food for a little bit of money. Whatever their origin, po’ boys are everywhere in New Orleans. The name is a catch-all that encompasses everything from fried shrimp and oyster sandwiches to basic turkey and ham (though seafood and roast beef tend to be the most popular options). It’s a safe bet that almost any place you visit will have some kind of house special that includes multiple meats, and they will all come piled high on traditional Louisiana-style French bread (distinguished from its continental counterpart by its narrower appearance and a crisp crust surrounding a meltingly soft crumb inside).
Whatever sandwich filling you order, you will have to decide how you want your sandwich “dressed.” Allow me to translate: “What do you want on it?” A fully dressed po’ boy generally comes topped with shredded lettuceand pickle as well as an appropriate condiment (grainy Creole mustard or gravy for roast beef, mayo or ketchup for seafood), though you can add onions or subtract any of the above as you see fit. And don’t worry about the spice – you’ll be able to hit your sandwich with Crystal, McIlhenny’s Tabasco, or another local hot sauce at your table.
To compare and contrast, I hit up three places credited as having “the best” po’ boys in all of New Orleans: Mother’s, Domilise and Johnny’s. I couldn’t draw any conclusions from the bread…almost everyone in New Orleans relies on Leidenheimer Bakery for their sandwich rolls. This would have to come down to a personality contest – it IS what’s inside that counts.
Mother’s is a no-frills breakfast and lunch place on Poydras just a few blocks from the Riverwalk. They have a cafeteria-style service line that often snakes out the front door…thankfully it moves pretty quickly. Once you reach the counter you place your order and pay. If you’re planning to sit and eat in, you find a table or a stool and you wait for someone to bring your food to you.
While you wait, take a look around and soak in 72 years’ worth of history. Check out the famous folks who’ve passed through Mother’s while in New Orleans. Better yet, look behind the counter at the old-school beverage dispenser pumping their ready-mixed (and spicy!) Bloody Marys which they serve up with a celery stick in a plastic cup.
And then get ready to fall in love. I tried the Famous Ferdi Special, reasoning that a sandwich doesn’t become a special in a 72-year old joint like this without some serious vetting. Jackpot. Mother’s realizes that some of the best and most flavorful roast beef doesn’t always make it out of the roasting pan in one piece. The Ferdi comes with homebaked ham, roast beef, and a delightful beef gravy with beef ‘debris.’ Get it dressed, and this already messy sandwich gets topped with shredded cabbage, pickles, mayo and two kinds of mustard (Creole and yellow). Good luck getting through the sandwich on fewer than four napkins!
While Mother’s is in a prime location near the bottom of Poydras Street, Domilise Sandwich Shop & Bar is pretty much the exact opposite. Domilise is on the 5200 block of Annunciation Street, and if that doesn’t sound familiar to you it’s probably because it’s a good twenty minutes’ drive from the French Quarter. And yet, somehow, Domilise has been drawing people to it like moths to a flame for more than fifty years.
Their menu is on the wall inside the front door, but don’t even think about getting out of line to check it out. Once again, you’ll find yourself lined up out the door – this city takes its sandwich culture seriously. As soon as you step inside the doorway, reach out to your right and grab a number. This will save you the embarrassment of having to backtrack later and grab an out-of-order number because you forgot one and they won’t take your order without one.
Domilise doesn’t have an official special, per se, but the two most vocal camps online swear by the fried shrimp and the hot smoked sausage. The shrimp were sweet and crisp without being overly oily, but I have to admit I succumbed to the allure of the hot smoked sausage. I went fully dressed again, and once again I found myself up to my elbows in dressing. It was all I could do to keep the contents of the sandwich from spilling out onto the table in front of me.
The sausage had a nice, smoky spice. It was andouille, but it definitely packed more of a punch than kielbasa or other smoked sausages I’ve tasted. And the Barq’s root beer in glass bottles was a nice, refreshing touch. On the whole, I’d say it was worth a trek out to Domilise to check it out, but I don’t know that I found this po’ boy to be far superior to either of the others I ate.
On one of the side streets near Jackson Square, I found the third of the most talked about po’ boy shops: Johnny’s. Johnny DeGrusha opened up at this spot in 1959, and three generations of his family have been serving up po’ boys here ever since. They do po’ boys the way Subway does submarine sandwiches, which is to say that they do all kinds. Alligator? Check. Bacon and eggs? You got it. Pork chops? How about two to a roll?
Of the three vendors I visited, Johnny’s seemed to be the most efficient in terms of organization and customer experience. Their counter staff took my order quickly, rang me up, and encouraged me that I wouldn’t be waiting too long. True to their word, I received my sandwich after just a few minutes of watching the line swell.
As I had done at Mother’s, I ordered the special. At Johnny’s, this translated to a roast beef and grilled ham po’ boy topped with two kinds of cheese. I got it fully dressed again, making sure I got a serving of salad with my sandwich.
This was by far the most manageable of the po’ boys I enjoyed and the flavors definitely worked. Even so, it just felt like I was eating a sub sandwich on unique bread. By choosing the “Johnny’s Special” instead of a more exotic offering, I ended up limiting my experience.
So can I resolve the po’ boy argument once and for all? Hardly. The best I can do is to say that each of these contenders brings something to the table. If you pick your winner based on location, a roll of the dice, or any other criteria you’re likely to be well served at any of these establishments…and I don’t even want to think about how many others there are throughout New Orleans just waiting for me to try them on my next visit!
While po’ boys ended up offering a surprisingly diverse field from which to choose, New Orleans’ other sandwich specialty follows a much more tightly prescribed recipe. The muffuletta, named after the round, Sicilian roll on which it’s prepared, is similar to a classic Italian deli sandwich in terms of meats and cheeses used. What sets it apart is its condiment: olive salad.
The olive salad used in muffulettas is a take on traditional Italian giardiniera that includes celery, carrots, cauliflower and other vegetables with olives in a blend of spices and olive oil. It is spread on top of the salami, ham, mortadella and cheese and allowed to soak into the spongy, focaccia-like bread.
Try though they might, New Orleans ex-pats and others who try to duplicate the recipe outside the Crescent City never seem quite able to pull it off. Whether it’s the bread, the spread, or something else altogether, those in the know dismiss most Washington-area offerings as missing something. So I figured I’d go to the source and see what a true muffuletta – or three – should taste like.
I had to start with the original. Central Grocery makes the most compelling claim to having introduced the sandwich back in 1906, and they are besieged by tourists and foodies alike all day long. They’re not likely to complain, however, as they’ve made quite an industry out of marketing the muffuletta. In addition to your sandwich, you can get a barbecue apron, t-shirts, and other muffuletta memorabilia. You can also buy your very own quart jar of olive salad to bring home and study in the hopes of successfully replicating the recipe (assuming you’re willing to check a bag on the flight home).
The muffuletta in its traditional form is a monster of a sandwich. That round loaf it’s made on could be split up into two, three, even four sandwiches without fear of someone going hungry. Do yourself a favor and order a half unless you plan to carry leftovers around the French Quarter with you.
In truth, I think Central Grocery has become something of a victim of its own success. To keep up with demand, their muffulettas are now pre-made and plastic wrapped in halves for easier sale. I bought one and – rather than hover in wait for one of the few stools around a communal table at the back of the store – headed across the street to a park bench to eat.
The meats were tasty and the bread was soft and fresh, but I didn’t get quite as much bite from the olive salad as I might have liked. I would find out why that was later on, but for the moment I found myself less than blown away. Could it be that this was the great, unmatched sandwich that I had heard so much about? If so, it just tasted like a tangier 9th Street Italian from Taylor.
It wasn’t until I had Mike Serio’s version of the muffuletta that I started to understand what makes the sandwich so damned appealing. There was something about this one that took the flavor to the next level. There was more of a pronounced olive flavor, and the oil seemed to have permeated the entire sandwich instead of just the upper half.
You can see the difference right there in my photo of Serio’s muffuletta at the beginning of this section. Because I was there at an off-peak time, owner Mike Serio took some time to talk with me about how he makes his muffulettas. The trick, he informed me, is two layers of olive salad, one on top and one underneath the meats and cheese. It made sense – more salad equals more absorption equals more briny goodness.
Serio’s was the site of Bobby Flay’s muffuletta Throwdown, where he shocked and appalled his audience by using mayonnaise and other non-traditional ingredients like Dijon mustard and honey. You can find Flay’s recipe on the Food Network site, but not surprisingly the Serio brothers opted to keep their olive salad recipe a secret. Too bad for those of us who aren’t quite able to make it down there for lunch.
For my third and final take on a muffuletta, I took a suggestion from the Concierge.com article that inspired our “10 Things NOT to Do in DC” post. I struck out past all of the nightlife venues at the nearer end of the French Quarter and made my way to Verti Marte deli. While its primary claim to fame in the article may be late-night service (they’re open 24 hours), Verti Marte’s muffuletta warrants a special mention.
I arrived long before the after-hours crowd and walked up to a deli counter filled with hot and cold dishes of all kinds. The menu boards spread out along the ceiling, offering enough choices to confuse even a sober customer. Thankfully, I knew what I had come for so I ordered their Mighty Muffuletta and figured I was all set.
I was wrong. A question came back: “You want that hot?”
Hot? They come hot?
I thought for a second and decided to give it a shot. As it turns out, a hot muffuletta comes across a lot like a tangy calzone or stromboli. The Italian meats all give up some of their fat and taste a little saltier. The olive salad gets warm, but not exactly hot. And the cheeses melt into everything else, making for a gooey sandwich that pulls away with each bite.
I couldn’t compare it to my other muffuletta experiences, though I did notice that Verti Marte had also opted to limit their olive salad to just one side of the bread. This was something different – the addition of heat changed the sandwich into something else altogether. All I knew was that I liked it. A lot.
After sampling my way through these different muffuletta options, I’m pretty comfortable with my choice of Serio’s as the best of the ones I tried. It was a good-sized sandwich and the added bite from that second layer of spread really did make a difference. That being said, I definitely came home with a jar of the Central Grocery’s olive salad, and I’m looking forward to trying my hand at replicating their recipe this summer. If anyone has a recipe for making traditional Sicilian muffuletta rolls, I may come calling for it soon enough!
Wow…lots to share and we’re not even done yet. Check back next week for my search for the Kwisatz Sazerac.