What is this sandwich?
This is a poor boy or po boy sandwich which is sometimes spelled like po’ boy or po-boy or po boy or poor boy—take your pick. I’m sure almost everyone has seen a po’ boy on a restaurant menu, but most of those po’ boy sandwiches likely contain fried seafood. This one does not.
I’m going to attempt to stick to the po’ boy spelling in this po’ boy blog post.
I’ve written about a fried shrimp po’ boy and I would predict that I will be frying some oysters for a sandwich in the future. But it turns out that the sandwich I’m writing about today, one of the original po’ boys, contains roast beef.
Here’s a great video from Bon Appetit that follows around a guy named Justin Kennedy, the General Manager at Parkway Bakery & Tavern. If you scooch the video forward to about the 7-and-a-half-minute mark they talk about prepping the roast beef or debris for one of their more popular po’ boy sandwiches.
Parkway Bakery & Tavern, established as a neighborhood bakery in 1911, now sells about 400 pounds of roast beef per day on sub-style sandwiches that are between 5 and 10 inches long. Parkway began its life as a bakery but in its early days pivoted to serve more than just bread.
Po’ boy history
According to a few sources, the history of the po’ boy sandwich dates back to 1929 when New Orleans streetcar drivers were striking against their bosses. Two brothers named Benny and Clovis Martin owned Martin Brothers Coffee Stand and Restaurant and at that time they publicly offered to feed the striking streetcar members of Division 194. The Martin brothers wrote a letter to a local newspaper stating that they would give a free meal to any striking streetcar workers.
The story goes that when a striking union member walked into their restaurant, Benny would call to Clovis, “Here comes another poor boy!”From Parkway Bakery and Tavern – History page
The sandwich they were providing these workers eventually took on the poor boy moniker.
As with a lot of culinary and sandwich history, the truth might not lie with the most commonly told story. Some sources claim the history of the po’ boy sandwich dates further back than the strikes of 1929 and into the late 1800s. But I feel that whether the sandwich existed before 1929 isn’t relevant because the invention of the name of the sandwich is more important. In this case, there’s very little debate that the Martin brother’s campaign to feed the “poor boys” is where the name originated.
This roast beef and gravy sandwich got the name debris (or day-bree in New Orleans pronunciation) because of the smaller pieces of beef that break off or get sliced off into the gravy and au jus.
Now that we know a little about one of the original po’ boy sandwiches we need to bake some bread and get started.
The long bread rolls
The history of New Orleans and the city’s cuisine have French roots. For at least 100 years before Louisiana became part of the United States, it was first colonized by France and then later by Spain. A French ethnic group known as the Creoles heavily influenced the food, language, and accents in the area. Creole cuisine as well as Cajun cuisine are based on French cooking and the sandwich bread that po’ boys are built upon today is an evolution of French baguettes.
The type of bread used in most New Orleans po’ boys is like a baguette but with a higher percentage of water to flour than a baguette which leads to a softer, less chewy sandwich roll. So, if we want to recreate this at home, we need a sub roll with a soft interior, a slightly crisp exterior, and just a little bit of chew when you bite through it.
To recreate a New Orleans-style sub roll, I chose to use my sub sandwich roll recipe which is one of the first roll recipes that I ever shared online. I remember when I was working on creating this roll I was starting to learn baker’s percentages to convert another recipe I had used from cups and tablespoons measurements to grams and also scale the amount of dough down to 3 rolls instead of 4 rolls. What resulted is also still one of the easiest sandwich roll recipes I have on the site. So, if you want to try your hand at baking, this might be a good option for you.
As with almost all yeast-risen sandwich bread, you get the best results if you let the roll rest and cool after baking. When you slice a roll and see steam come out, what you’re seeing is moisture leaving the bread. In a sandwich roll or a bread loaf, that’s not a good thing. Here’s my sub roll recipe that is almost guaranteed to work great for your next po’ boy.
Parkway Bakery & Tavern uses chuck roast for their roast beef which is typically a cut of meat used to make hamburgers. When shopping at my local store if I’m looking for an 80/20 package of ground beef it will often be listed as “chuck.” The term 80/20 refers to the percentage of lean meat to fatty meat. So, if you are buying 80/20, you have meat that contains roughly 80 percent meat and 20 percent fat. Since this typically comes from chuck, you can assume that most chuck roasts that you purchase will also contain a good portion of fat in them.
The process of cooking roast beef low and slow should allow a lot of the fat in the beef to render into the gravy, lending more flavor and richness. A four-hour cooking time in red wine and beef broth helps to flavor the meat and keep it moist throughout the longer cooking time.
Parkway Bakery & Tavern is braising their roast beef for 12 to 14 hours. That’s a bit longer than I want to run my home oven, so my recipe only requires 4 hours of braising time. The beef is still very tender and properly cooked.
Beef and mushroom gravy
A roast beef po’ boy at most places in New Orleans will not have mushrooms in the gravy. If you’re a traditionalist, you can leave those out if you want. But I think the mushrooms bring a lot of flavor and texture to the final dish. So, this isn’t a super traditional chuck roast and gravy recipe, but it’s a really good way to cook a big piece of beef with a whole lot of beefy sauce to accompany it.
After 4 hours of braising in the oven, the sauce should have thickened, and the beef should be very tender. You could shred the beef at this point, but the meat in most roast beef po’ boys is sliced and then added back into the gravy.
Remove the meat from the gravy and wrap it up or put it in a container in the fridge to cool before it’s time to slice.
The sauce and veggies
Most po’ boy sandwiches have an interchangeable meat option like fried shrimp or roast beef—or a combination of multiple types of protein—and then they all are similar when it comes to veggies and sauce.
Sauce or mayo?
Po’ boy sandwiches traditionally contain some sort of sauce. I’m basing my roast beef on Parkway’s po’ boy which only uses mayonnaise, so that’s what I chose to use. In my shrimp po’ boy recipe, I made a remoulade sauce which would probably be ok in this sandwich but I think mayo is more straightforward in flavor and works better with roast beef and gravy.
Shredded lettuce is what I chose to use in my po’ boys but you could use whole-leaf lettuce if you wanted. It just seems to make more sense to me to have a pile of lettuce instead of a few large pieces. For most of the sandwiches I made, I used iceberg lettuce, but at least one of them I used finely sliced green leaf lettuce. I feel like you want some lettuce-y crunch in this sandwich to bring a different texture than you get from the meat or other veggies.
I’m writing this blog post in January which is a really bad time to go shopping for tomatoes. But even in the coldest months of the year, you can hopefully find vine-ripe tomatoes or greenhouse-grown tomatoes that might have a bit more flavor than the basic January tomato. Buy the best tomatoes you can find or just exclude them from the sandwich if they all look terrible.
Once the tomatoes are sliced and placed on the sandwich, make sure to sprinkle them with a little salt. And my last suggestion in the tomato department is to make sure you put the tomatoes close to the mayonnaise-slathered bread. The juice from the tomato will blend with the mayonnaise creating a combined savory sandwich sauce.
Here’s my well-tested homemade pickle recipe that I like to keep in the fridge all the time. You can certainly use your favorite grocery store pickle for a po’ boy, but it’s way more fun if you make your own.
The roast beef po’ boy sandwich
Here are a bunch of photos of roast beef po’ boys I made in the testing for this recipe. Spoiler: the full recipe I have shared for this sandwich includes an addition of French fries and it’s down a bit further.
Streetcar po’ boy version
Parkway Bakery & Tavern has a second roast beef po’ boy on their menu. They call it the Streetcar Poor Boy. This sandwich contains “flash-fried” golden brown potatoes alongside the gravy and debris. So, I decided to create this version as well. I wrote my recipe based on this Streetcar po’ boy because it’s easy enough to leave off the French fries if they’re not to your liking.
Here’s my streetcar-style po’ boy recipe. Leave off the French fries if you want a more normal roast beef po’ boy sandwich.
Tender roast beef and a savory gravy are the stars of this po' boy sandwich, but the fresh veggies and pickles cut through some of the richness and balance the sandwich well. If you don't want to make your french fries from scratch, you can bake some store-bought frozen versions or just leave them out altogether.
Ingredients:Roast beef and gravy
- 3 tablespoons neutral oil (vegetable, canola, etc.)
- 3 pound chuck roast
- salt and black pepper
- 2 large onions, roughly chopped
- 8 to 16 ounces sliced mushrooms, roughly chopped
- 4 to 5 cloves garlic, minced
- 3 tablespoons butter
- 3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
- 1⁄2 cup red wine
- 1 tablespoon Worchestershire sauce
- 1 tablespoon beef base (Better than Bouillion brand is good)
- 3 cups beef broth (low sodium works best)
- 2 bay leaves
- 1 to 2 russet potatoes
- peanut oil or another neutral frying oil
- 1 10-inch sub sandwich roll
- roast beef (from above)
- gravy (from above)
- french fries (from above)
- shredded lettuce
- tomato slices
- dill pickle slices
Roast beef and gravy: preheat your oven to 275 F (135 C).
Liberally salt the exterior of the chuck roast and allow it to sit on a cutting board for 30 minutes. After the beef has rested, dry off the exterior with paper towels to ensure it is dry. The salt will bring moisture to the surface and if the surface of the meat is damp it will not sear properly in the next step. So, dry it off.
On your stove, over high heat place a large pot or Dutch oven. Add 3 tablespoons of oil and allow it to heat up until the oil is shimmering. Once the oil is shimmering, add the roast and sear it on each side for 7 minutes. Once at least 3 sides have been seared remove the roast to a plate to rest for the next step.
Remove the pot from the heat and allow it to cool for 5 minutes while you chop your onions and mushrooms. After 5 minutes, add the pot back to medium heat and add 3 tablespoons of butter.
Once the butter is melted and bubbly add onions and mushrooms and cook for 4 or 5 minutes to soften them.
Add the minced garlic and cook for around 1 minute, stirring everything together.
After 1 minute, add 3 tablespoons of all-purpose flour, stir, and cook for another 1 minute to cook off the flour taste.
Pour 1/2 cup wine, 1 tablespoon of Worcestershire sauce, and 1 tablespoon of beef bouillon base into the onions and mushroom mixture. Stir everything well to combine and as soon as it's all combined you can add 3 cups of beef stock and 2 bay leaves.
Bring everything to a simmer and then add the chuck roast back into the pot. Taste the gravy for seasoning. If it doesn't seem salty enough, add 1 or 2 teaspoons of salt.
Place the lid on to cover the beef and gravy and place in the oven to bake for 4 hours.
After 4 hours remove the pot from the oven and remove the lid from the pot. Allow the beef to rest in the gravy for 30 minutes. Once 30 minutes have passed, remove the beef to a sealed container or wrap it in plastic and foil and place it in the refrigerator to cool. It's easier to slice when it is cool.
Remove the bay leaves from the gravy and place the gravy in another sealed container to be used later when it's time for sandwiching.
After about 2 hours you can slice the meat into 1/4 inch or thinner slices. Or you can wait until it's time for sandwiches to slice.
French fries: using a mandoline or a sharp knife, cut your potatoes into 1/4 inch planks and then into 1/4 inch spears of potato.
Add all your potatoes to a large bowl of water for at least one hour. This allows the excess starch to be removed from the potatoes.
After an hour or so, drain the potatoes and dry them with paper towels. Attempt to get them as dry as possible.
Add your oil to a large heavy-bottomed pot. You need your oil to be at least 3 inches deep in the pot.
Bring the oil temperature up to 300 degrees F and fry all your potatoes in batches for 3 to 5 minutes. This first stage is to cook the potato all the way through. This isn't going to make your fries turn brown and crispy. That comes in the second fry.
After 3 to 5 minutes, move the par-cooked potatoes to a rack to cool and cook the rest of your potatoes in batches.
Once all your potatoes have been fried once, raise the temperature of your oil to 375 F.
Once again fry your potatoes in batches until they turn golden brown for 1 to 2 minutes.
Move each batch of fries to a bowl or plate and salt immediately while they are still warm.
Sandwich assembly: in a small pot add beef and a couple of large spoonfuls of gravy. Cook over medium heat for about 5 minutes or until the meat and gravy are warmed all the way through.
Spread mayonnaise on both interior sides of your sub roll.
Top the bottom of the roll with beef and spoon on any extra gravy. Top the beef and gravy with a handful of crispy fries.
Add lettuce, tomato slices, and pickles on top of the fries, and top the whole sandwich with the top of the sub roll.
Check back next week
Last week I said this week’s sandwich would be all-about-cheese and well, that is simply not true. Maybe next week? Either way, shocking no one, we’ll be covering yet another sandwich.