When you’re in New Orleans, you have to leave the French Quarter for the best oyster bar and the best poor boy.
Yes, I’m going to follow the lead of Tom Fitzmorris and spell it the original way — poor boy rather than po-boy.
Get your oysters at Casamento’s at 4330 Magazine St.
Get your poor boys at Parkway Bakery & Tavern at 538 Hagan Ave.
Ed David, the New Orleans native who makes dining at the Faded Rose in Little Rock such a pleasure (have you checked out Ed’s expanded poor boy menu?), confirmed my choices. That makes me feel I’m on target.
Casamento’s, which opened in 1919, hasn’t changed much since then. It’s open from 11 a.m. until 2 p.m. each Tuesday through Saturday and from 5:30 p.m. until 9 p.m. each Thursday, Friday and Saturday.
The tiled restaurant is about the cleanest place I’ve ever been.
Here’s how the restaurant’s website (www.casamentosrestaurant.com) describes its history: “Casamento’s Restaurant was established in 1919 by Joe Casamento, a hard-working immigrant from Ustica, Italy. Casamento’s is a spotlessly clean restaurant, tiled inside and out. Following building traditions from his native Italy, Mr. Casamento knew tiled surfaces would be easier to clean. So much tile was needed to meet Mr. Casamento’s requirements that it took four tile companies from across the Unites States to fill the order. Customers liken it to a giant swimming pool.
“Unlike most New Orleans seafood restaurants, Casamento’s uses its own signature bread called pan bread instead of French bread. Our oyster loaves have been acclaimed as far away as Australia and England and featured in numerous publications. … We have one of the top seafood gumbos in New Orleans. Casamento’s also has one of the best soft-shell crabs in the area along with fried shrimp, trout and Italian spaghetti and meatballs.”
The Fodor’s review of Casamento’s puts it this way: “Tiled in gleaming white and cream-color ceramic, Casamento’s has been a haven for Uptown seafood lovers since 1919. Family members still wait tables and staff the immaculate kitchen out back, while a reliable handful of oyster shuckers ensure that plenty of cold ones are available for the standing-room-only oyster bar.
“Specialties from the diminutive menu include oysters lightly poached in seasoned milk; fried shrimp, trout and soft-shell crab platters; and fried oysters, impeccably fresh and greaseless, served between thick slices of white toast. Everything is clean, and nothing is superfluous. Even the houseplants have a just-polished look.”
Salma Abdelnour once wrote in Food & Wine that food-obsessed New Orleans friends love Casamento’s “not just for its lived-in feel and old-time cred but for its Louisiana oysters: raw, fried, stewed and apparently as incredible as the creatures get.”
Indeed, the oysters just don’t get much better than those served as Casamento’s.
When it comes to New Orleans food, I trust Julia Reed (that talented and funny daughter of the Delta from Greenville, Miss., who now makes her home in New Orleans) as much as anyone.
She wrote in Food & Wine that Casamento’s is a “family-owned institution with tiled walls and floor, a long oyster bar in the front and tables in the back where I eat oyster stew in winter and the fried oyster and shrimp sandwiches all the time. At most places in New Orleans, a fried oyster and/or shrimp sandwich means that the seafood is served on a halved loaf of French bread and called a po-boy. Those are good, but the ones at Casamento’s, served on thick slices of white toast and dressed with mayonnaise, lettuce and tomato, are way better.”
On to the poor boys!
The best are found in the Mid-City section of town at Parkway Bakery & Tavern at the intersection of Hagan and Toulouse, overlooking the Bayou St. John. The restaurant is closed on Tuesdays but is open from 11 a.m. until 10 p.m. the other six days of the week.
This place has been around for almost a century and received a new surge of publicity back on Aug. 29 when President Obama and members of his family stopped by to eat. The president ordered a shrimp poor boy and then visited with diners until the restaurant’s loudspeaker loudly announced: “Barack pickup.”
Though the president ordered a shrimp poor boy, the best-selling poor boy at Parkway is the hot roast beef with gravy. Other poor boy offerings include alligator sausage links, meatballs, fried potatoes, ham, pastrami, catfish and more. The original menu even contained tongue and liver cheese poor boys. Thankfully, those are no longer served. The sandwiches are dressed New Orleans style with lettuce, tomato, mayonnaise and pickles.
Brett Anderson, the talented restaurant reviewer for The Times-Picayune in New Orleans, puts it this way: “Just seven years since it was resurrected by Jay Nix — in local restaurant time, a year being roughly equal to a month in real time — Parkway Bakery has bored into the fabric of New Orleans with its happy-sad story line. It’s firmly ensconced on the map of food-curious tourists and catnip for national media. When the first family stopped by for a K+5 lunch, you got the feeling his advance team did its homework. Its revelation is that a po-boy joint does not need to appear on the verge of collapse in order to evoke history and serve great food. The classics — roast beef, shrimp, hot sausage — are hard to beat, and Justin Kennedy, Nix’s nephew and managing partner, always seems to be in the kitchen, making sure they stay that way.”
Nix reopened the restaurant in 2003 and had to rebuild it again following Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
“It doesn’t present itself as anything more than a comfortable place for a person to wash back a shirt-staining sandwich with a cold beer — yet it is,” Anderson writes. “In a town where people’s favorite po-boy joints tend to be walking distance from their homes, Parkway is a destination because it provides what customers expect of every other genre of restaurant: consistently high quality, a little atmosphere, enough room to sit down with a few friends, a clean bathroom.”
Another Parkway fan is Michael Stern of www.roadfood.com.
“New Orleans’ roast beef po-boys don’t draw the tourist attention bestowed on more distinctly regional Gulf Coast fried seafood heroes, but locals are passionate about them; and the superior beef sandwiches made by eateries in and around New Orleans are as intrinsic as a muffaletta or an oyster loaf,” Stern writes. “The best of the best is made at Parkway Bakery & Tavern, a wood-frame building overlooking Bayou St. John. It comes tightly wrapped in a tube of butcher paper that already is mottled through with gravy splotches when you pick it up at the kitchen window.
“Unwrap it and behold a length of fresh, brawny bread loaded with beef so falling-apart tender that it seems not to have been sliced but rather hand-pulled, like fine barbecued pork, into myriad slivers, nuggets and dainty clumps. It is difficult to discern where the meat ends and gravy begins because there is so much gravy saturating the meat and so many carving-board scraps, known as debris (say DAY-bree), in the gravy.”
Ed David told me that even though it’s not on his Faded Rose menu (there likely wouldn’t be many buyers in Arkansas of this simple creation), his favorite sandwich when he was growing up as a self-proclaimed “Ninth Ward yat” was the gravy poor boy.
“That meaty gravy makes the city’s ultimate dining bargain,” Stern writes. “Parkway’s gravy po-boy is a minimalist sandwich of the good, chewy bread filled only with gravy. The bread is substantial enough to absorb massive amounts of the liquid and a booming beef scent, becoming the most appetizing savory load imaginable, its surface crowded with debris that is the concentrated essence of roast beef.”
While the sandwich might not be much to look at, Stern adds: “If you love the flavor of beef, especially when combined with fresh, muscular bread, it is a beautiful thing. Note all the meat shreds you get in the gravy.”
Where’s your favorite oyster bar?
Who makes your favorte poor boy?
The floor is open for nominations.