What's A Po' Boy And What Does It Taste Like?

In the wide-ranging world of sandwiches, po' boys may be one of the best in the genre. A po' boy is a loaded submarine sandwich with roots in Louisiana-style cooking that can be filled with any number of ingredients, from breaded fried seafood to hot sausage to roast beef – and then loaded onto crisp French bread and smothered with rich sauces such as remoulade for an incredibly indulgent meal. 

Alongside gumbo and jambalaya, the classic po' boy is also one of New Orleans' most iconic foods — and is as important to the culture in the city as Mardi Gras. As is often the case with many legendary foods, this famous sandwich has many claimants to the throne when it comes to its original invention, but one family has been credited with being the innovators (via New Orleans Historical). As the story goes, the sandwich has roots in labor disputes in the early 20th century, making it an even more important piece of history.

A brief history of po' boys

The po' boy sandwich was born in a time of great drama and tumult. According to the official website of the Oak Street Po-Boy Festival, the sandwich can be attributed to brothers Bennie and Clovis Martin, former streetcar conductors who opened Martin Brothers' Coffee Stand and Restaurant in 1922 housed in New Orleans' French Market. Following failed contract negotiations between streetcar owners and employees in 1929, a heated strike began in the city that shut down the rail for two weeks and resulted in burned streetcars and other destruction. To support the transit system's 1,100 workers whose jobs were in question, the Martin brothers announced that they would feed, for free, any member of the union.

In a letter dated August 6, 1929, the brothers wrote: "We are with you heart and soul, at any time you are around the French Market, don't forget to drop in at Martin's Coffee Stand & Restaurant ... our meal is free to any members of Division 194" (via Po-Boy Festival). In order to feed the mass number of strikers, the Martins worked with a local baker to develop a 40-inch loaf of bread whose width was uniform from top to bottom, allowing the restaurant to slice hearty 20-inch sandwiches to feed a good number of people without creating waste from end to end.

"We fed those men free of charge until the strike ended," Bennie Martin once said, as noted by Oak Street Po-Boy Festival. "Whenever we saw one of the striking men coming, one of us would say, 'Here comes another poor boy.'" 

How are po' boys made?

After the 1929 transit strike ended — in favor of the streetcar company — the Martin brothers parted ways, each opening restaurant locations around the city that served po' boys (via Oak Street Po-Boy Festival), with the hearty meal becoming a popular option to feed families during the Great Depression. Over the years, the sandwich spread like wildfire throughout the city (and eventually beyond), with different cafés and restaurants serving their unique takes on it. But there are a few standard features that make a po' boy a po' boy. 

Most are still made on wide New Orleans-style French bread. Once it's split down the center, the loaf can be filled with a variety of ingredients (more on that below). What's important to remember is the term "dressed," which FrenchQuarter.com explains refers to the sandwich's standard toppings of shredded lettuce, sliced tomatoes, a slather of mayonnaise, and sliced pickles. Depending on the main protein, a po' boy might also get a generous ladleful of rich gravy.

The many types of po' boy sandwiches

At its essence, a po' boy is simply a type of sub or hero sandwich, and as such, it can be filled with a variety of proteins. But there are several standard types of po' boy sandwiches that you are likely to find offered in New Orleans cafés and coffee shops — and other stops across the South. One well-known variety is the roast beef po' boy, which features French bread filled with braised or boiled beef and then slathered with rich gravy.

Other than a classic roast beef, there's also plenty of seafood-stuffed po' boys to choose from, especially in New Orleans. Located on the Gulf of Mexico, the Big Easy is known for its plentiful, high-quality seafood, which of course makes its way into the city's famed dishes, including this sandwich. The two most common seafood fillings for a po' boy are fried shrimp and fried oysters. And if you can't decide, Thrillist recommends you ask for a "half-n-half," with shrimp on one side of the sliced bread and oysters on the other. In addition to the standard "dressed" toppings, these seafood po' boys often come with a swipe of remoulade sauce as well for some extra kick.

In addition to these standard fillings, you might also find po' boys with fried catfish or soft shell crab, New Orleans-style "BBQ" shrimp (which means shrimp sautéed in a buttery sauce, according to Spicy Southern Kitchen), or even hot sausage and cheese.

Where to find po' boys

If you want to get embroiled in a hot debate, ask a New Orleans resident about where to find the best po' boy. The city is jam-packed with cafés, restaurants, and luncheonettes that all serve revered versions of the various styles of this sandwich — with everyone laying claim to a tried-and-true favorite. That being said, there are a few locations that are almost universally recommended.

For a classic roast beef po' boy, head to Parasol's, where Serious Eats shares the beef is tender and the gravy is thick and garlicky. For a fried oyster po' boy, a fried shrimp po' boy, or a "half-n-half," check out Domilise's, established in 1918 and still a favorite among locals and tourists (via Domilise's Po-Boy & Bar). For a cheesy, greasy hot sausage sandwich, head to Verti Marte — at any hour, in fact: it's open 24/7, as noted by Eater

And then, of course, there are plenty of "new wave" fancier po' boys spots serving updated versions of the classics, such as Killer PoBoys' roasted sweet potato sammie (via Killer PoBoys) and Walker's Southern Style BBQ cochon du lait (suckling pig) po' boys (via Walker's Southern Style BBQ).

How to make a po' boy at home

Of course you don't have to book a trip to New Orleans to get this sandwich — it's easy enough to make a tasty version at home. The first thing you'll want to look for is the bread. While you won't be able to find New Orleans-style French bread outside of the city (unless you order it online from a provider like Leidenheimer), any soft "French" bread will do. Just note, you don't want anything with too crispy of a crust, such as a baguette. Crisp it up in the toaster or oven before you assemble your sandwich in order to get the desired texture.

Then get a good recipe, like this one for a fried shrimp po' boy, which is loaded with crispy, juicy crustaceans and slathered in tangy remoulade sauce. J. Kenji López-Alt can also walk you through the process of making a roast beef po' boy simmering with meaty, garlicky gravy, via Serious Eats. Set aside an afternoon and transport yourself to the Big Easy — no plane ticket needed.