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Steven Wells Hicks is an epicurean essayist and the author of three novels: "The Gleaner", "The Fall of Adam", and "Horizontal Adjustment," all available through amazon.com

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

New Orleans Dining: Parkway Bakery & Tavern

The greater New Orleans area is home to roughly one million people, about one million of whom are restaurant and food critics. Were it possible to get 1,000,000 New Orleanians organized for anything, arguing the merits of restaurants and their fare would be the city’s official sport.

This is particularly true about po’boys – the sandwich you might know by the names hero, submarine, gyro, torpedo, grinder or any number of others. About the only thing po’boy purists can agree upon is that if it isn’t made with New Orleans style French bread, it isn’t a po’boy.

While po’boys can be found everywhere from white tablecloth places to corner grocery stores, natives generally seem to favor taverns or small cafes that run from tidy Mom-and-Pops to corner bars that can be called colorful, if not downright scruffy. One thing they all have in common is that their devotees are passionate.

Fans of the roast beef po’boy at Parasol’s will never concede that a better version may be found at Domilise’s since both have been featured on Food Network series. Those who prefer their po’boys stuffed with buttery New Orleans style barbecue shrimp will square off between Liuzza’s-by-the-Track and the original lunch special at Pascal’s Manale. French Quarter residents and visitors alike have chosen between Johnny’s and Café Maspero for decades.

A relative newcomer to the battle is Crabby Jack’s, a small cafe in front of a commercial seafood market, known for such unusual ingredients as crisp fried calamari and a slow-roasted duck in its own gravy. And fans of oysters, freshly shucked, battered and plunged in oil still bemoan the fact that Gail and Anthony Uglesich never reopened their rickety, ten-table restaurant after Hurricane Katrina and the ultimate oyster po’boy has faded into memory.

Beyond the eight establishments mentioned above, there are scores of places in every corner of the city offering their take on ingredients classical or creative, and each has its own retinue of die-hard supporters.

Trying to name a best po’boy or place to buy one would be a fool’s errand at best, and incitement to fisticuffs at worst. That said, people with enough time to visit just one po’boy place on short visits to the city would do well to consider Parkway Bakery and Tavern in the Mid-City, a short block off Bayou St. John.

Parkway is the very embodiment of old New Orleans neighborhood places. An unadorned frame building sitting on a corner in a tattered section of the city, it is at once a neighborhood landmark and a wistful reminder of better days behind. The place had been boarded up before a local entrepreneur restored and reopened it in the early 2000s before it had to be redone a second time in Katrina’s aftermath.

There is an essential honesty about Parkway that “is what it is” without pretense or affectation. The front room is a small bar, the back room is a utilitarian sandwich café, and outside there is a covered deck and patio, where bands sometimes play on weekends or the spontaneous, informal holidays that seem so often to spring up on the New Orleans calendar. The decor is mainly old signs and pieces of Saints memorabilia.

The sandwiches come to your table or barstool wrapped in white butcher paper. Napkins are in a dispenser along with salt, pepper and New Orleans-made Crystal Hot Sauce wrapped in a Parkway label. The wait staff is young and cheerful.

In such prosaic, workmanlike surroundings, everything succeeds or fails on the quality of the food, and in that sense, Parkway is an unconditional success. While eavesdropping suggests that the dressed roast beef and fried seafood po’boys are the runaway favorites, visual reconnaissance shows people diving into the spectrum of Parkway’s offerings with no visible indicators of the least discontent.

The menu lists nineteen po’boys in either regular (eight-inch) or large (twelve-inch) sizes, a grilled cheese on white or wheat and a grilled Reuben on rye. A good many of them are traditional and predictable (ham, turkey, marinara meatball, chicken breast, various sausages and the like). Some are indigenous to the city.

New Orleans roast beef is slow-cooked in a gravy that’s thicker than that generally found in Chicago Italian beef or French dip sandwiches. Once “dressed,” New Orleans patois for lettuce, tomatoes and mayonnaise (pronounced “my-nez”) with pickles, onions and Zatarain’s Creole mustard optional, there is usually little way to contain all the ingredients in the flaky crust and airy centered French bread is which the conglomeration is assembled. Oh, hell, let’s just call it what it is; it’s a mess, but a mighty fine one.

Because of New Orleans’ gulf location, fresh seafood is abundant, making fried shrimp and oyster po’boys the other main entries in the Parkway repertoire. During their short season, the restaurant occasionally lists soft shell crab po’boys as blackboard specials. For those with larger appetites (and a handy change of clothes), Parkway offers its own Surf’N’Turf, a combination of roast beef, gravy and fried shrimp.

Beyond the traditional standards, Parkway has a gravy only po’boy on the menu, as well as one made with French fried potatoes where one would expect to find meat. This has progressed, of course, into the fully dressed, gravy-slathered, French fries po’boy. In a nod to Louisiana’s Cajun heritage, the restaurant also lists an alligator sausage po’boy on its lengthy menu.

While Parkway has full bar service, a look at the tables will show most of them covered with frosty beer bottles or longnecks of Barq’s root beer, a regional favorite long before it was purchased by the Coca-Cola Company and the traditional accompaniment for a classic New Orleans po’boy.

On a side note, while no one is absolutely certain of the origin of the term “po’boy,” the most commonly bandied about explanation is that it goes back to a four-month streetcar strike in New Orleans. Legend has it that restaurateur Clovis Martin, who had formerly been a streetcar conductor, offered free sandwiches to striking workers. The restaurant workers would joke, “here comes another poor boy,” and the name was soon stuck on the sandwiches.

Some people may – and some people will – take issue with the selection of Parkway Bakery and Tavern as a solid representative of the hundreds of po’boy places that New Orleans and the surrounding areas. The argument will last forever, and there will never be a definite winner declared.

So try this.

Ask a cabbie where to get the best po’boy in the city. Ask a bartender or a cop or a construction worker. Then go there. But make sure you have a lot of napkins handy.

Parkway Bakery and Tavern
539 Hagan Avenue (at the corner of Toulouse).
Open 11 AM until 10 PM Wednesday through Monday, dark Tuesday.
Major credit cards are accepted.
Telephone: (504) 482-3047
Website: http://www.parkwaybakeryandtavernnola.com

ADDENDUM: In late March, the Travel Channel taped an episode of “Food Wars,’” in which roast beef po’boys from Parkway are pitted against those from Domilise’s. Once the decision is announced, it will be included here.

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