The first time I heard about Po’ Boys was from the legendary mouth of Adam Richman. A sandwich of American, Deep South Creole origin, there’s some debate about its origin. Mr. Man v. Food alleged that the sandwich originated as a peace offering that men would bring back to their wives after a night of indulgence on the town. Much more likely is the more sourced version of history, in which streetcar drivers on strike in the 1920s were offered sandwiches by the Martin Brothers’ restaurant in New Orleans. These subsequently became known as ‘Poor Boys’, shortened to ‘Po’ Boys’ in the Louisiana dialect of the owners.
At least, that’s the version of history to which London’s two finest purveyors of Po’ Boys subscribe: Hank’s of London’s Southbank Centre Food Market, and Division 194, usually of Camden Market’s KERB and currently in residency this Spring at The King & Co. in Clapham.
Although originally a sandwich of fried seafood such as shrimp or oysters, accepted variations also come in the form of beef ‘debris’ in gravy or fried chicken. Perhaps like the famous Philly Cheesesteak, however, one element remains consistent in defining a Po’ Boy: its bread. Wherever I research it, this roll is described as a baguette-like French bread with a crisp crust and soft, fluffy centre.
And that’s the element that Division 194’s Po’ Boy nails. Now I love a baguette – it’s my go-to transport for most sandwich fillers – but this was something far more special than your average sandwich shop baguette: it was more delicate; billowier. It made the ingredients of beef shin ‘debris’ and bone-marrow gravy, house Cajun hot sauce, and aioli with pickled cucumbers and lettuce really sing. Having only previously heard about the Po’ Boy as a slice of Americana legend, this matched my lofty expectations and then some.
Then, at Hank’s on the Southbank, I again opted for their beef Po’ Boy in the interests of a fair test as much as anything else. The buttermilk roll had a much softer crust, perhaps more like what we’d associate a hot dog roll or bun with in the UK, but certain notes really came through in the sandwich: their Cajun seasoning and hot sauce – in particular – linger long in my mind, and their fries made for an excellent side. The unusual blackened fish Po’ Boy also looked like an interesting variant on the day, though admittedly I didn’t have the appetite to try both.