A Culinary Tour of New Orleans, Part 2
Picking right back up from yesterday's post on my weeklong eating adventure in New Orleans, I'm going to talk a little bit about sammiches, a foodstuff that's well-respected and well-represented in the Crescent City. While some cities can claim to have contributed one sandwich to the national culinary landscape -- Philadelphia has the cheese steak; Chicago the Italian beef; New England, Boston, and New York have grinders, submarines, and heroes -- New Orleans has two: the po-boy, or poor boy, and the muffuletta.
The Muffuletta hails from Central Grocery, an Italian-American grocery store and sandwich counter located near the Mississippi River in the French Quarter. When people think of New Orleans cookery, they generally think of Creole, which is an amalgam of different cultural styles rolled into one spicy soup, but primarily shares ties with the French. The city, however, has also had its fare share of Italian immigrants, who have also imparted their touch on its cooking. Creole-Italian is one such subset of the cuisine that the city features plenty of; in fact, one of the best meals I ate there was at a family-style Creole-Italian joint called Adolfo's, a little gem tucked above the Apple Barrel bar on Frenchman Street. Anyway, that Italian influence on the city birthed the muffuletta, a sandwich that's half submarine, half panino, but all New Orleans.
The muffuletta starts with sturdy, rustic Italian bread similar to focaccia that is baked with gobs of sesame seeds. It's sliced open and stuffed with a host of deli meats and cheeses: salami, mortadella, and capicola (the boss meat) as well as a sharp, dry provolone and a creamy Swiss (emmentaler). The trademark of the muffuletta, however, is the spiced olive relish jammed under the top layer of the bread, complete with a healthy ladeling of garlic-spiced olive oil. Because of the thickness of the bread, the oil doesn't usually drip; rather, it soaks up like a sponge -- or perhaps like dunking a thick tear of bread into a plate of salted olive oil, a tradition that's been fabricated by more than a few chain Italian eateries. All the elements conspire to make one savory sandwich. Although a muffuletta doesn't necessarily blow you away on first bite, it slowly gains your trust and sucks you in. It's hearty, comforting eating at its best.
Sadly, muffulettas are a rare breed outside New Orleans. You can get a version of the sandwich locally at Rosey Baby in Lauderhill that is served with remolaude, oddly enough. I've never had one there, but the Babe does some other New Orleans favorites with an authentic touch, particularly crawfish, so it could be a winner too.
Po-boys come "dressed" with mayo, lettuce, tomato, and pickles, but there's some variation there depending on the filling. Roast beef po-boys, for example, get a generous helping of gravy made from the pan drippings of the roast, so that it mixes with the mayo into a messy slurry of goodness. Other joints like Mother's, whose famous "Ferdi" (no not Fergi) is pictured above, come with cabbage instead of lettuce. The Ferdi features baked ham, roast beef, and gravy with "debris," little bits of roast beef that shred apart and fall to the bottom of the pan during cooking. Anyone who knows something about low heat, time, and the wonders of caramelization can appreciate how saturated with flavor this debris is. In the pic, you'll see it on the side in a cup, because these Fedris were ordered to go.
Other great po-boy fillings: fried seafood of all varieties, including oyster, shrimp, and catfish, spicy Cajun sausage, fried green tomatoes, and even French fries. Some good places to munch on a po-boy locally include the Babe, Alligator Alley, Shuck 'N' Dive, and the Whale's Rib. As I said yesterday, I'm partial to the Alley, whose po-boys come with cole slaw and remolaude, an amazing combination that tempers Louisiana with South Carolina (think: pulled pork and slaw). The Babe also has a killed catfish po, however, and the bread is oh-so-right. Shuck 'N' Dive's version is rather plain to me, but it's a fave of many others around New Times.
One po-boy accompaniment you'll have trouble finding in these parts: Zapp's potato chips, a NOLA classic. Ultra crisp, thick-cut, greaseless, and well-seasoned, these old-fashioned-style chips are pure awesome. The Cajun-dill flavor tastes just like spicy remolaude. Fantastic!
More tomorrow on the Big Easy, as I wrap up and pose the question, what can South Florida's food scene learn from its swampy brethren?
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