Having lived in New Orleans for three years, I approached Po’Boys & Pickles with strong reservations. The Crescent City holds a special place in my heart and I don’t take its cuisine lightly. Indeed, S and I return to New Orleans yearly to see friends and, well, to eat. It’s not unusual for us to start selecting and discussing the restaurants we will visit months in advance of each trip.
Needless to say, New Orleans cuisine is a favorite of mine. From the classic creole cuisine of Galatoire’s to po’ boys and gumbo at Liuzza’s by the Track; from red beans and rice to boiled crawfish, I love it all. Though far from an expert on New Orleans food, I know what I like.
The initial reviews I read were positive, but I remained skeptical: po’ boys and gumbo in Portland, Maine? Still, I couldn’t pass up the chance to try Po’Boys & Pickles. Even if it was just OK, it would be better than nothing, particularly being over 1500 miles from New Orleans. I went with the family last weekend and can happily report that the food is not just OK, it’s the closest thing to a New Orleans po’ boy shop I’ve found in New England.
The fried seafood po’ boys feature shrimp or oysters with a golden brown and delicious cornmeal crust. Each piece was well fried, resulting in a thin, crisp coating from which the fresh taste of the seafood emerged. Both po’ boys are served “dressed” with lettuce and tomato; the oyster featuring a roasted pepper mayo and the shrimp sporting tartar sauce. Although the french bread isn’t as airy and does not quite have the crackly, flaky crust of the best New Orleans po’ boy loaves, it is fresh and soft with a decent crust. It is light enough to avoid competing with the seafood and condiments inside. Liberally doused in Crystal hot sauce, both make a satisfying lunch.
The debris po’ boy is basically a New Orleans-style roast beef sandwich. Instead of roast beef cold cuts, the New Orleans version features pieces of slow-cooked roast beef in a rich beef gravy. At PB&P the roast beef could have been cooked a bit longer (as it was somewhat chewy) and would have benefited from more gravy. Still, its a hearty and filling sandwich, with a rich beefy flavor. Although, according to the menu the po’ boy was dressed with horseradish mayo, I didn’t detect the punchy kick I was expecting (and hoping) from the horseradish. Again, Crystal provided some needed heat.
Which brings me to the gumbo, one of my favorite New Orleans dishes. The best gumbos (such as the one served at Liuzza’s by the Track) feature a dark roux, imparting a deep, toasty, depth of flavor. PB&P’s, while made with a lighter, blond roux, nonetheless incorporates all the components of a good gumbo including the trinity (celery, green peppers, onion), andouille sausage, chicken, and shrimp. It has a subtle smokey taste from the andouille and slight heat from cayenne pepper. Not exactly what you’ll find in New Orleans, but quite enjoyable in its own right. Of course, a few dashes of Crystal is not out of place to further liven up this hearty soup.
(Yes, I like Crystal hot sauce. We buy bottles of it during our visits to New Orleans and at home I add it to everything from eggs to pizza to red beans and rice).
Crystal isn’t the only authentic New Orleans touch at PB&P. It sells Zapp’s potato chips (try the “Creole Tomato with Tabasco”) as well as Dixie Beer (the Blackened Voodoo Lager isn’t bad, but until they sell Abita, I’ll probably stick with the local Portland brews)(update: PB&P now sells Abita beers, Purple Haze (a refreshing rasberry wheat), Turbo Dog (a decent porter), and Jackamo IPA). Plus, the walls are adorned with old 1970s photos from Louisiana (purchased on eBay). In short, real thought has gone into making Po’Boys & Pickles feel like a true New Orleans po’ boy shop here in Portland. Will you find better po’ boys in New Orleans? Of course. But, the sandwiches at PB&P would not be out of place at many neighborhood shops in the Crescent City. Enjoying a cold beer, a cup of gumbo, and an oyster po’ boy here is as close as I’ll get to New Orleans before I next visit my favorite city.