ROBERT ST JOHN: Roast beef po-boy can't be beat

By Robert St. John

There are several sandwiches that would make my all-time list of great sandwiches – The Deli Deluxe at Martin Wine Cellar in New Orleans, my mom’s ham and cheese poppyseed sandwiches, my beef tenderloin sandwiches with horseradish mustard, and anyone’s shrimp po-boy – but the sandwich I eat more than any other is a roast beef po-boy.
I have been in the po-boy-selling business for 25 years. Though I have been in the po-boy-eating business twice that long. Most of that time I have eaten po-boys made with roast beef as the key component.
Po-boy connoisseurs fall into two categories: Seafood and non-seafood. Among the seafood po-boy lovers, shrimp is king. Oyster po-boy eaters are more particular about their sandwich, but the shrimp boys outnumber the oyster boys three to one.
When it comes to non-seafood po-boys roast beef is the supreme ruler. It’s not even close.
You might catch a few po-boy shops selling ham, but the majority of their ham will usually be combined with roast beef to make a house special po-boy such as the Ferdi or Ralph sandwiches at Mother’s on Poydras in New Orleans. Turkey doesn’t belong on a po-boy – on a hoagie or submarine or whatever one calls sandwiches 200 miles beyond the Louisiana border, sure but – that’s just a waste of good French bread. Ham, turkey and any bastardized po-boy creation are just there to round out a restaurant’s offerings and to add diversity to the menu. The money in a po-boy shop is made with shrimp and roast beef.
As a child, eating in the po-boy shops of New Orleans, my family was split down the center. My mother and brother ate oyster po-boys. I always opted for roast beef. There is something about the warm, crisp-on-the-outside-but-soft-on-the-inside French bread and how it pairs with the savory richness of the beef and the sloppiness of the dark gravy.
A good roast beef po-boy requires many napkins over the course of one meal period. A true roast beef po-boy should be sloppy enough to require multiple napkins, but composed well enough so that one is able to pick it up and eat it. When we opened our casual concept in 1987, I knew people were going to comment about how sloppy the roast beef po-boy was, so I headed off the observations and gave it the menu title it deserved – Sloppy Roast Beef Po-Boy.
I like a shrimp po-boy, too. As a matter of fact, in another day and time, I used to order a fried shrimp po-boy and a roast beef po-boy when dining in a po-boy shop – partially because I couldn’t make up my mind, but mostly because I liked them both. Those two sandwiches, along with a few oyster po-boys, are partially responsible for my ever-increasing girth since 1996.
A real roast beef po-boy must have six things:
1.) Excellent bread. If the vessel is not good, the sandwich will not be good. There is no way to make a po-boy taste good if the bread is bad.
2.) First-rate beef. A true po-boy shop will roast its own beef. Imitators will buy deli-style roast beef and slice it on a meat slicer. The beauty of in-house roasted beef is the jus. The key to a good jus is the bits of beef floating around in it lovingly called “debris.” A debris po-boy can only be made by a place that is roasting its own beef and not buying deli beef packaged thousands of miles away.
3.) Real gravy. Gravy for a true roast beef po-boy must be made using the pan drippings from the roast, not a powdered gravy mix. I am ashamed to admit that years ago we used a mix for our roast beef, but those days are long gone and I will certainly answer for that indiscretion at the pearly gates.
4.) Lettuce or cabbage. This is where texture joins the game. The cabbage-or-lettuce argument, similar to the marshmallows-in-sweet-potato-casserole has die-hard on both sides. Either of these work well. In New Orleans one will find more cabbage than lettuce. It is sturdier and holds up to the gravy and condiments.
5.) Minimal condiments. I like a little mayonnaise and a touch of Creole mustard, but if the gravy is good, one doesn’t need much.
6.) Pickles. Yes, pickles. One can’t make a great roast beef po-boy without dill pickles. For years we didn’t add pickles to our po-boys. I don’t know why. Every po-boy I ever ate in New Orleans was prepared with pickles. It took my son requesting pickles for his po-boy five years ago to make us ask ourselves why we weren’t using pickles. We came to our senses and now we know that pickles add the perfect amount of acidity to the sandwich.
Sometimes it takes a 6-year old to keep you on your toes.
Robert St.John is a restaurateur, chef and author of numerous books.