The roast beef on “the sandbag” po-boy at Avery’s on Tulane is a mix of irregular strands and falling-apart bits, like it’s been simmering on your grandmother’s back burner all afternoon before supper.
This po-boy, though, arrives with the loaf open, like a convertible with the top down, and a row of fried pickles on top of that beef, zigzagged with sharp horseradish cream.
Simultaneously homey and jaunty, it’s as head-turning as one of those extreme eats designed for Instagram but also something rooted in a style New Orleans knows by heart and knows as its own. That’s Avery’s all over.
See the Buffalo shrimp po-boy, a two-fisted masterpiece of orangy, tangy sauce and blue cheese dressing over reefs of shrimp under the airy-crunchy crust of a Leidenheimer loaf. The fried stuffed artichoke balls with crawfish sauce show what must happen when leftovers go to heaven. And the “Danimal” is a monster burger/hot sausage combo that looks like a dare and tastes like your next hangover remedy.
None of this is exactly revolutionary, and it's not supposed to be. Christy and Justin Pitard opened Avery’s to make a living, not to make a statement.
Soon, though, an eatery based on the standards put a new spin on them, drawing on that most essential ingredient for any po-boy shop: local regulars. That also explains why Avery’s is still around, even after the Pitards had every reason to hang it up.
Long roots, new editions
The great po-boy shops of New Orleans are as much a part of the city as oak trees. They have long roots, but they all had to start somewhere. The stories behind the classics usually go back a few generations, often to someone with a barroom or a grocery and a plan to make a little more money slinging sandwiches.
Avery’s is a modern iteration that shares the humble origins of the more famous po-boy purveyors. It’s narrow, low and a little dark, with off-color tables, a concrete floor, a tiny bar and a handmade feel from top to bottom.
The Pitards opened Avery’s in 2012, naming it for their then-baby daughter. The first-time restaurateurs chose po-boys because they reasoned they could learn the basics and find ways to stand out. Cut your own fries, cook down your own roast beef, source your seafood local, they figured, and it would make a difference.
They set up shop in the blank slate of a vacant storefront on a woebegone stretch of Tulane Avenue. With the massive hospital complexes then taking shape just across the street, the area seemed to be on the rise. Certainly, it could not have gotten much worse. This was entry level entrepreneurism, risky by necessity.
Since then, a wave of small eateries have opened, most also of the start-up, bootstrap variety. Along with a few old stalwarts of the avenue, they’ve made this part of town one of the most interesting areas for inexpensive restaurants.
At times, though, Avery’s felt like an early adopter that went in too early. The predicted boom has been slow to materialize as hospital development dragged and sluggish road work took its toll. They tried dinner hours a few times but had to cull it back. They were slammed some days, practically alone the next.
The one-day-at-a-time mantra assumed different gravity after Christy Pitard was diagnosed with cancer. She has battled it for years now, through repeated rounds of chemotherapy and surgery. For a while, the duties of a mom-and-pop fell squarely on pop, pushing the family business to the limit.
“There have been times where we were sure we’d close the door, at the end of the month, the end of the year,” Christy said. “It was to the point where you’d have a good cry and get ready for it. But then something would change.
“Someone you haven’t seen in a while comes in. Someone gives you a hug. Someone tells you a story about their kids. It’s all the relationships we’ve forged here that make it worth it, even when we weren’t able to pay the mortgage on time. It’s going from the lowest of the lows to having one great day and then you’re back.”
Some of those relationships now play out on the menu. When one customer couldn’t decide between fried oysters and roast beef, a bit of hollered negotiation ensued through the kitchen window. The result combined both on one loaf, with chopped bacon for good measure. It lives on as the Pearl River po-boy, which would be a grand mess if the individual components weren’t so good.
“The Stas” is a vegan burger made from red beans and rice and named for Stanislav “Stas” Moroz, a lawyer from the nearby public defender’s office who doesn’t eat meat. The Pitards and Moroz struck a deal — order one of these red bean burgers every day for a week, and your name goes on the menu. The Pitards say it was a keen move to ensure five sandwiches sold that week. Now any day it gives a crunchy, creamy balance of flavors dressed with tomato chutney.
The omnivore behind the Danimal is Dan Heidel, a massage therapist who wandered in one day and asked for a hot sausage patty on his burger. Getting no argument from Avery’s, he upped the ante on successive visits, adding fried egg, bacon and onion rings. A mayo mixing Steen’s cane syrup and sriracha hot sauce eventually finished it off. These days, Heidel orders it as a po-boy, which doubles its size.
But he's not just coming to Avery’s for his namesake sandwich. There’s red beans on Monday, too, and the dark, deep seafood gumbo, and there’s something about the place that makes him feel at home.
“When you grow up in New Orleans, you have this emotional connection to food, it’s what you grew up with, you’re always looking for those flavors,” Heidel said. “When it’s good, you know it’s good.”
The old school po-boy shops are part of the firmament of New Orleans. But what if all the city had left were the old guard? How long could this corner of New Orleans food culture persist on the classics alone?
With places like Avery’s around, we won’t have to find out anytime soon.
2510 Tulane Ave., (504) 821-4110
Mon.-Sat., 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.
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