Surf and turf po' boy — Photo courtesy of Brian Jarreau/RAPJAB
Ask anyone in New Orleans. The po' boy isn't just a sandwich.
Throughout its storied life, the Big Easy's most iconic sandwich has served as a great unifier , and in a city that has gone through more struggles than most, the po' boy has helped New Orleans survive. Literally.
The po' boy was created to help feed striking workers, and over the last century, restaurants like Parkway Bakery and Tavern – winner of 10Best Readers' Choice award for best po' boy – have served po' boys during the city's many ups and downs.
Parkway's seen it all, and like the city itself, gone through its own ups and downs, including multiple floods and almost a decade out of business. The +100-year-old institution has now been reopened for more than a decade, and according to many in New Orleans, is once again making the best po' boy in NOLA.
What makes a po' boy?
There are an infinite number of ingredients that can go onto a po' boy (which will almost always be "dressed," meaning it will come with lettuce, pickles, tomatoes and mayonnaise). But what matters far more than what's inside the po' boy is what's on the outside: New Orleans bread.
The French bread with square ends is the defining ingredient of a po' boy, and what differentiates it from similar sandwiches like a hoagie, or sub. Like many of the city's other po' boy shops, Parkway gets its bread from Leidenheimer Baking Company, which, since 1896, has been baking French bread in steam-injected ovens to give them a soft, airy inside and crunchy outside.
Parkway owner Jay Nix says: “It comes in a loaf. It’s about 32 inches long, it’s about 4 inches wide and it’s about 3 inches tall. It’s got a crust on it like a potato chip. The inside of it is light and airy with big bubbles, and as you can imagine, breakin’ open that potato chip crust with cotton-candy light dough inside is unbelievable.”
The birth of a legend
Po’Boys were born in 1929 as a way to feed the striking workers. Credit goes to brothers Clovis and Benny Martin, streetcar conductors-turned-sandwich-shop owners who made it their duty to help out striking streetcar conductors by giving them free sandwiches, and when a conductor would walk into their shop, people would yell, "There goes another poor boy!"
"New Orleans shortens everything all the time," Nix explains. "So it got shortened to po’ boy, but we’re one of the few shops that actually spells it p-o-o-r-b-o-y-s, and that is out of respect for the street car conductors who went on strike when the poor boy was created.”
Parkway Bakery makes its mark
Here we are in the 70's, when the Timothy Brothers were the owners/operators. In 1978, we closed due to a flood that destroyed our ovens. Today, we're still here thanks to owner Jay Nix, Justin Kennedy, the #ParkwayforPoorboys team - and YOU. Thanks for supporting local businesses like ours. ❤ #followyournola #tbt #throwbackthursday #imsoneworleans #NewOrleans #staylocal #nola #historic #vintage #louisiana #poorboys #igphoto #instagood
The history of Parkway Bakery and Tavern is even longer than that of the poor boy itself.
Parkway opened in 1911, and until 1929, it was known for baking fresh bread, donuts and "seven sisters sweet rolls." Then, in 1929, the city’s street car workers went on strike and changed everything.
Not long after the original poor boy was created, Parkway shifted gears and made the iconic sandwich its flagship item. Until 1978 the bakery was dishing out sandwiches 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Parkway falls on hard times
In 1978, Parkway had its first setback when a flood destroyed its ovens, forcing the bakery to close temporarily. It was the first time a flood caused Parkway to close (it wouldn’t be the last).
In 1993, after 82 years in business, Parkway closed for good – or so everyone thought – in large part because the neighboring American Can factory shuttered, taking a customer base of 1,500 workers with it. It appeared that Parkway was dead.
In 1995 Nix bought Parkway’s corpse, but he didn't resurrect it for almost a decade.
Parkway's second coming
Happy Friday! Here's Parkway owner Jay Nix with a #ParkwayForPoorboys dreamboat of a poor boy! Double tap if you want a bite of dat. #followyournola #jazzfest2016 #jazzfest #CollisionConf #poorboy #NewOrleans #nola #louisiana #imsoneworleans #dinner #yumstagram #foodies #midcity #bayou ______ Photo via @nolanews
Nix had just bought and renovated a home next door to Parkway, but never intended to reopen it. He only decided to purchase the former bakery out of fear it would reopen as something he didn't want to live next door to, like a 24-hour liquor store. So for almost a decade, the building served as the former contractor’s tool shed.
When Nix bought Parkway, he had never even heard of it. But over the next 10 years, so many nostalgic people asked him when he was going to revive the neighborhood institution that he was finally left with no choice.
So in December 2003, Nix reopened Parkway. He had no restaurant experience and no poor boy recipes, but he had something more important: a name.
To live and die by roast beef
Roast beef po' boy — Photo courtesy of Brian Jarreau/RAPJAB
“I opened in 2004, and people had been coming there since 1911,” Nix says. “They all came back because they couldn’t believe Parkway was reopened, but then they measured me.”
Parkway serves almost two dozen types of poor boys, but like many old-school shops, Parkway was always known for its roast beef. It only took Nix and his sisters six or seven attempts to come up with a roast beef recipe that reminded them of their mother's, and apparently customers liked mom's cooking as well.
Nix explains: "Had the roast beef not been right, they would have said, ‘It might have the name, but it don’t have the roast.’ And had I got the roast right and called it ‘Jay’s poor boy shop,’ that wouldn’t have worked either. I had to have both of those things…they had to get past that roast beef to say Parkway’s back.”
Shortly after Parkway was officially deemed back, it nearly died again.
Six feet of water
Parkway flooded after Katrina — Photo courtesy of Parkway Bakery and Tavern
Less than two years after reopening, disaster struck. When Katrina hit, Parkway flooded with six feet of water that didn't leave for almost three weeks.
"The storm was, oh God, it was unimaginable," Nix says. "I just thought the world I knew had come to an end and we went to Florida to start a new life."
The po' boy that refused to die
The shop was underwater, and so was Nix's bank, so he had no access to money. But a friend flew him in via helicopter, Nix waded through water, took the money out of the registers and the change bank in the safe to get the business restarted. Less than three months later, Parkway was back.
"Because none of the suppliers could bring us anything, ironically, all we served was roast beef," Nix says. "Roast beef is what poor boys were born on. That’s what made them famous and that was the only thing we served 'cause that was something that we could get, so we were cooking like 1,200 pounds of roast beef a week."
Now, Parkway turns out almost two dozens types of sandwiches – between 700 and 2,000 a day. The recipes might not be quite the same as in 1929, but things haven’t changed much.
A trip back in time
Photo courtesy of Brian Jarreau/RAPJAB
Parkway’s walls are adorned with photos and memorabilia from the bakery's heyday in the 40s through the 70s.
“When people walk in the building they sorta go back in time," Nix says. "They still get that feeling of going where their daddy brought them when they were waist high.
“The experience starts when you’re driving through the 100-car parking lot with 120 trees, and then you walk into to the front of building and then you experience that late 1800 bar architecture, and then you walk into the dining room and it’s sorta like mom’s kitchen.”
President Obama makes his mark on Parkway
Shrimp po' boy — Photo courtesy of Brian Jarreau/RAPJAB
Of course, if you're open for long enough, some things change. For example, Parkway's classic poor boy is no longer its most popular – all thanks to Barack Obama.
Nix says that ever since Obama visited Parkway and ordered a shrimp poor boy in 2010, the bakery serves up more of the President’s pick than anything else on the menu.
“People are always confused because they don’t know which one to get,” Nix says. “So my nephew made a sandwich which is called the surf and turf, which is a roast beef poor boy with golden fried shrimp on the top of the roast beef, and that pretty much satisfies them."