No matter what goes into it, the key to a po-boy is always the bread. That’s the crucial difference that manifests from one po-boy shop to the next around New Orleans. And it’s the X-factor that has frustrated so many attempts to faithfully recreate a po-boy very far outside the 504 area code.
At the Sammich, that bread is also the bridge connecting some elaborately creative sandwiches back to the frame of reference all lovers of po-boys share. From the shattering-crisp crust and airy compression of the inner loaf, these “sammiches,” as they’re called, can go from tempura fried lobster ($15) coated in a spicy/creamy/sweet glaze to a vegetarian ($13) clutch of grilled asparagus and squash and fried green tomatoes dressed in a mellow, tangy-tinged tofu remoulade.
Others have gone in this direction, most notably Killer Po-boys, the tavern kitchen inside the French Quarter’s Erin Rose bar where the small menu is devoted completely to modern po-boys. At the Sammich, proprietor Michael Brewer goes a step further by reimagining the entire experience of the New Orleans po-boy joint, keeping a family-friendly feel, taking the kitchen in different directions and building an eminently accessible wine bar into the program.
If traditional po-boys evolved from what was practical to sandwich in a loaf (roast beef debris and gravy, say) or just too plentiful to be ignored (fried shrimp and oysters), the Sammich menu reads more like restaurant dishes reconfigured for the popular appeal of the po-boy.
The sour tang of green tomato and grapefruit lace the lean strands of braised rabbit ($14), and the crumbled bacon and thick planks of melting Brie escorting a fat tumble of fried oysters ($14) stretches the decadence of a two-bite appetizer into a meal-sized sandwich. A grilled chicken po-boy ($10) sounds boring by comparison, but the Sammich version is set apart by a hybrid heap of kimchee and coleslaw. The idea takes the common ground of crunch these two dressings share and builds a whole new flavor, which drips in spicy, creamy savor all around the char-marked chicken and seeps into the loaf.
Such extrapolations on the po-boy aren’t likely to unseat your favorite roast beef or traditional fried shrimp rendition across town, which are the only answer to more ingrained cravings. But, like so much else happening across the New Orleans dining scene today, the Sammich adds interesting new flavors to explore. To that point, look for a new “three way sammich” option ($15) to join the line-up here soon, with smaller samples of any three sandwiches.
The Sammich got its start back in 2012 as a walk-up food counter inside the Mid-City music hall Chickie Wah Wah. Over the winter Brewer found his own restaurant space near the Uptown universities, and here he’s been developing a fuller idea for his offbeat sandwich shop.
From a handful of side dishes, he’s expanded his menu to include a long list of small plates that would be at home in a gastropub. Fried escargot ($6) dusted with cornmeal fill a small paper tray like an earthy, woodsy take on fried oysters, and succulent, slim-patty sliders of lamb, pork and beef sit on small, squishy burger buns ($5.50).
Roasted Brussels sprouts ($5.50) are fashioned into a salad, but then finished with enough brown butter and toasted cashews strung together with Parmesan that the notion of a salad falls to the wayside. The charred corn salad ($4.50) similarly works more like a side dish, with a spicy soy sauce and atomized bits of bacon all over the bright, sweet pop of the corn.
The Sammich is an open, laid back space, with long high-top tables that function like lunch counters during the day and bar perches at night. More than 50 beers, all in bottles, line the bar, where there’s also a residential fridge crammed with 20 wines available by the glass. Priced at either $3, $4 or $5 for modest pours, the entire format invites sampling and experimentation. If ever there was a po-boy shop for wine pairings, this is it.
Order your meal at the bar, and then watch as the guy or gal behind the counter clips your ticket to a zip line and flings it off across the room and through the kitchen window. If this old fashioned delivery system gets your attention, wait until you see what the modern po-boys coming back out can do.
Follow Ian McNulty on Twitter @IanMcNultyNOLA.