We missed Fat Tuesday (a.k.a. Mardi Gras) in New Orleans on Feb. 21 darn it! but to make up for it we tracked down some Creole-style cooking at the newly opened Original Po Boys.
Owner Eric Crawford was born and raised in New Orleans, came to Sacramento 10 years ago, owned a construction company for eight years and watched it fold as the building boom went bust. Undaunted, he has realized his long-held notion of opening a restaurant.
"I've been in the kitchen my entire life and have always had a passion for cooking," he said on the phone Monday.
My lunch pals were Patrick Powers, a Sacramento public-relations guru for 35 years, and Emmy Award-winning videographer Robert Ansell, who runs Royce Video in Old Sacramento. Are we experts in Cajun cuisine? Hardly. But willing to taste anything on a plate (or, in this case, plastic bowl)? Yep, even the all-you-can-eat crawfish ($23) but save that for another day.
Original Po Boys is casual, the utensils plastic, the staff helpful, the trash receptacles reaching capacity by 12:30 p.m. last Friday.
We arrived at 11:15 a.m. and by 11:30ish the line of diners stretched from the order counter to the front door. "Sixty percent of my customers are from New Orleans," Crawford said.
We wanted to taste a sampling from the crowded menu ($3.60 to $16), so started with a combo platter of fried prawns, oysters, scallops and catfish fillet. The fresh-tasting, non-oily seafood was thinly jacketed (by hand) in a mix of seasoned cornmeal, with excellent cocktail sauce (hot sauce and vinegar are on the table).
"I once caught a catfish in the river; it was ugly," Robert said, taking a bite of fillet. After a minute he added, "Ugly or not, I need to eat more catfish, this is delicious."
"I can taste the ocean in these oysters," Patrick said. The crispy-juicy critters are from Washington and arrive pre-shucked a few times a week. We found the prawns and scallops to be almost as good, but why bother with standard-issue fries?
Our next three dishes are house-made from "recipes that have been in my family for a few generations," Crawford said. "They're based on what's called the 'Creole trinity' bell pepper, celery and onion go into each one, with different seasonings."
Our table agreed the dishes needed more seasoning overall. "I don't put a lot of (salt and spices) into the food," Crawford said. "It's a matter of being health-conscious" and of serving a customer base with a range of tastes.
Understood, but we think heat and bold spicing would be the starting point for a place specializing in Cajun cooking.
The dark gumbo over rice was chunky with shrimp, scallops, two kinds of sausages shipped from New Orleans, and a blue-crab claw and leg.
"There are two kinds of gumbos in New Orleans," Crawford explained. "One is made with roux (flour and fat blended to make a thickening agent), which the tourists get. The other is filé gumbo, which is what the natives make at home. That's the kind we make here."
Filé powder is from dried sassafras leaves, and lends gumbo a unique flavor.
When I mentioned how oily we found the gumbo, Crawford said, "That's the oil from the sausages. If you make it with roux, the flour absorbs the oil."
We liked the simmered sauce and the firm, fresh shrimp in the succulent étouffée, better than the rice-heavy, rather dry jambalaya with chicken, sausage and shrimp.
Moving on, boudin is a type of Cajun sausage made in several styles with varying ingredients. This is another item Crawford sources from New Orleans, a hearty mix of beef, lamb, rice and a medley of spices that pushed us around in a good way.
"Does 'boudin' mean 'a little bit of everything?' " Robert wondered.
"This is a meal in a casing," Patrick said.
The po' boy sandwich was created in the 1920s at the Martin Brothers Coffee Stand in New Orleans. It certainly takes confidence to name a restaurant after such an icon.
Original Po Boys offers many versions shrimp, oyster, sausage, roast beef, ham and cheese and the like, in 4- 8-, 12- and 16-inch lengths.
Our 8-inch catfish po' boy was a thick filet on a chewy house-made roll smeared with mayo and ketchup, with lettuce, tomato and crunchy pickle chips.
"The bread makes the po' boy different (from other sandwiches)," Crawford said. "We couldn't find (a bakery) to duplicate New Orleans bread, so we came up with this one ourselves."
How's Original Po Boys doing so far?
"We're booming," Crawford said. "Our lunch lasts four hours. It's a blessing."
ORIGINAL PO BOYS
Where: 3119 Broadway at Alhambra Boulevard, Sacramento
Hours: 7 a.m.-10 p.m. Sundays-Thursdays; 7 a.m.-11 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays
Food: 2 1/2 stars
Ambience: 2 stars
How much: $-$$
Information: (916) 538-6876, www.originalpoboys.com (parts of the website are still under construction)
By Allen Pierleoni