Of the many camps that form the diverse Nation of Roast Beef Po-boy Connoisseurs, no two would appear to be more at odds than the toasted bread adherents and those who demand their bread as God/Leidenheimer intended/delivered it.
The battle lines were drawn in the comments section of a po-boy dispatch published this month on NOLA.com. “Toasted bread? It’s not a po-boy,” wrote “royrogers,” although he loosened the grip on that staunch position in a later post.
Another commenter, “slophry,” stuck harder to his/her guns, arguing that “toasted French bread is going to act different than non-toasted French bread,” particularly in the way it reacts to “the gravy and juices … I prefer a soft French bread over a crispy French bread especially for the roast beef. I love it when the bread gets soaked in the gravy. Point being that toasting the bread will result in a different experience over non-toasted bread.”
Slophry essentially makes an argument opposite to those proffered by members of the camp where I pitch my tent — a place that, thanks to the comparative resilience of toasted bread, requires a fraction of the number of napkins as its rival. In a nutshell, toasted bread fans like a sandwich that stands a chance of holding its shape to the last bite. For untoasted fans, sloppiness is pretty much the point of a roast beef po-boy.
All of which brings us to Johnny’s Po-Boys, the raucous, 60-some year-old breakfast-and-lunch hall. If there’s a better po-boy shop in the French Quarter, I haven’t been to it.
Johnny’s roast beef po-boys are, according to general manager (and grandson-in-law of founder Johnny De Grusha) Mike Cancienne, built from meat slow-boiled with garlic, black pepper, onions, bell pepper and celery, “kind of like you do with your crawfish or your crabs, so it takes on all that flavor.”
After it’s done, the beef is left to soak in a pot of gravy in the open kitchen behind the counter, waiting to be plucked by tongs. It’s delicious.
Johnny’s kitchen staff will gladly griddle-toast the Leidenheimer bread for your roast beef po-boy if you ask, but people who don’t specify receive their sandwich on untoasted loaves, which is how I tried mine. Shake your head no when asked whether your order is to go. It means your sandwich will be served on a plate, not steaming inside a cocoon of butcher paper.
The first half is a reminder that fresh po-boy bread can be crisp-skinned and sturdy, even untoasted. Because it has had longer to soak up the gravy, the second half comes closer to slophry’s messy ideal. The sum total is the best of both worlds, Switzerland in the shape-shifting form of a roast beef po-boy, a sandwich two opposing camps in the N.R.B.P.C. should be able to agree on.