Between the Bread

Hamburger Po-Boy

My Rouses Everyday, July/August 2017

In the po-boy world, the options seem to go on forever.

And though I’ve been known to obsess over a crispy oyster po-boy or dive headfirst into a gravy-soaked roast beef po-boy, I’ve always had a deep affection for another branch of the sandwich’s family tree — the hamburger po-boy.

These meaty, pan-fried classics tend to get a lot more love from locals who grew up inside po-boy culture than visitors digging into their first “Peacemaker.” They’re often sentimental favorites, delicious memory triggers wrapped in wax paper — lunchtime reminders of the past, with a bag of Zapp’s on the side.

Crossover Classics

The hamburger po-boy is a straight-ahead crossover classic. If a restaurant has a griddle and some good ground beef, it’s got two distinct menu items catering to different-sized appetites. The iconic po-boy bread — shatter-crisp on the outside with a whisper-light interior, makes for a bite-to-bite contrast that’s different from a pillow-soft hamburger bun.

As a kid, this sandwich was my gateway into the Wonderful World of Po-boys. Growing up in New Iberia in the 1970s, there weren’t many restaurant options beyond neighborhood burger joints and a few boiling points that ramped up when the springtime crawfish started hitting the tables.

Joe’s Drive-In was a few blocks from our house with a flashing arrow sign, oyster-shell parking lot and a dozen tables inside a low-slung brick dining room. The menu was the usual South Louisiana selection of burger variations, fried seafood and a daily plate lunch featured on the sign outside.

Our family would visit Joe’s once in a great while for celebrations, always ordering as a big family with decidedly limited options. (“Choose cheese or no cheese. There are four of you, so you can split two orders of fries. Small sodas.”)

Still, any meal out was a special occasion, and the 8-year-old me fantasized about the wonders of the rest of the menu. (“A hamburger steak sounds fancy. What’s on a catfish plate?”) Sometime during early grade school, I swore that when I had my own money to spend, I’d get to make my own choices at Joe’s.

A few years later, I walked through the dining room doors, my pockets burning with my first paper-route payday and my mind reeling with the full menu of possibilities. Flush with cash at age 11, I’d explore the menu one paycheck at a time.

After searching the list, I settled on the old and new: hamburger po-boy (dressed, no mayo, no tomato, add mustard), fries and onion rings. I could have started with a standard burger “all to myself,” but decided to level up, realizing that a po-boy was two tasty burgers disguised as a single item.

A few bites in, I started to understand the magic of the burger in po-boy form — a distinct texture that serves a kid’s sense of plenty and decadence. (Once you finish one delicious burger, you’ve got another wrapped up and ready to go.)

For me, the memory of a first “grown-up” meal, paid for with my first work money, makes the hamburger po-boy special and worth ordering every once in awhile, just for nostalgia’s sake.

If po-boys are available at a burger joint, I’ll give them a try. The folks at Parkway Bakery in Mid-City near the Carrollton Avenue Rouses Market keep them on the daily menu, and they’re everything you’d expect them to be. Classic poboy joints like Domilise’s in Uptown New Orleans do brisk business in hamburger po-boys, which sell nearly as well as classics like fried shrimp and roast beef. There’s an epic burger po-boy in Biloxi, Mississippi — Burger Burger — served at the restaurant of the same name. It’s a half-dozen patties layered inside an 18-inch French bread loaf, dressed with mustard, onions and a house-made chili-based sauce. My grade-school self might have tackled this beefy challenge solo; modern-day me might have to bring a few friends…

Hot Sausage

True to its name, this fiery, patty-based po-boy is a New Orleans standby and seems to be one of the city’s universal menu options. Patton’s Hot Sausage, a local culinary legend that began in New Orleans’ 9th Ward, set the standard for this smooth-textured and spicy beef sausage patty that crisps up on the edges when cooked on the grill or skillet.

Any food writer working the New Orleans beat spends a lot of time exploring neighborhood joints, learning the nuances of the po-boy scene. Any corner store or tiny sandwich shop could have a specialty worth a dedicated trip, so you’re always on the lookout for solid house specials.

At Gene’s Po-Boys on Elysian Fields Avenue, its pretty easy to spot the kitchen’s dedication to hot sausage. The spicy specialty gets space on two of the joint’s menu signs — one for a breakfast po-boy (topped with an egg, served 6AM-10AM) and a round-the-clock variation with melted American cheese slices to balance out the peppery heat.

It’s also pretty easy to find Gene’s just about any time of day — the bright pink paint job and glaring yellow signs scream for attention — and the kitchen keeps rolling 24 hours a day. One of those signs also highlights Gene’s hamburger and cheeseburger po-boys, which gives a burger lover plenty of options. (Probably a good thing, since its companion business is a frozen-drink operation known for the “strongest daiquiris in town.”)

Located at a bustling urban crossroads and close to the thumping bar strips on Frenchmen and St. Claude, Gene’s is a solid late-night option for locals, tourists and the occasional celebrity in need of an after-midnight meal. (Beyonce and Jay-Z apparently stopped after a gig one legendary night.)

All these elements play to the strengths of the hot sausage po-boy served at Gene’s. After a night on the town and a few sweet after-hours cocktails, revelers look for something bold and savory before bed. The blasting heat of the Patton’s patties provides a smooth, peppery base flavor, while a few slices of American cheese add richness that cuts the heat nicely. These flavors mix with the toppings (go fully dressed, of course) and create a post-bar snack that hits all the flavor centers without being too sloppy. It’s a spicy, smooth way to round out a wild night.

Here Comes the Judge

This eyebrow-raising burger variation blends three distinctive tastes — ground beef, hot sausage and Italian sausage — in a single patty. Available only at Johnny’s Po-Boys in the French Quarter, it’s a solid nod to the palates and ingenuity of local po-boy cooks.

Every now and again, a new po-boy can break your brain.

This happened on a visit to Johnny’s Po-Boys, a workaday joint and one of the Quarter’s low-key “hole in the wall” dining spots located a half-block off Decatur Street.

When you spot a po-boy named the Judge Bosetta, you order first, then ask how they make it. The counter people have to explain this one pretty often, and they do it well. As far as structure goes, it’s a burger-and-Swiss po-boy, except the patties are a special blend of three meats. I assumed that they’d make it by mixing equal parts of the tasty components — hamburger meat, hot sausage, and aromatic Italian sausage — in a single bowl, meatball-style, and make patties of the mix.

Instead, they perform what can only be called a move of culinary genius. For every Bosetta patty, they create a three-flavor stack of thin layers, then right before cooking, smash them together and twist their palms, smooshing the stacks together. The result is a marbled burger with a different flavor combination in every bite. The first mouthful might be a blast of heat from the hot sausage, with a little bit of savory beef. The next might have you thinking about pizza (mostly Italian sausage) with a little pungent spice around the edge. It’s a stunningly simple move that everyone should work into their home burger game for variety’s sake.


My Rouses Everyday contributor, photographer and journalist Pableaux Johnson was recently included in Epicurious’ list of The 100 Greatest Home Cooks of All Time.