In New Orleans, the breakfast version of a regional classic has been slow to catch on. Why?
EC: Where Are the Breakfast Po-Boys?
Credit: Photos by Helen Freund

“Here, take half of my sandwich,” the man says to me. I’ve hardly even met him, this person decked out in purple-and-gold Louisiana State University regalia, and yet here he is, busily scooping up two quarters of his towering club sandwich, turkey falling out of the sides, pickled jalapeño slivers and bacon bits tumbling into his lap as he pushes the still-open Styrofoam box my way.

“Man,” he exclaims after taking a bite. “This is good, Jackie!”

That would be Jackie Dupeire, a petite 70-year-old barely visible behind the tall chrome-and-glass refrigeration case, who is, at 8 a.m., too busy cooking eggs and frying bacon to answer.

I awkwardly accept the man’s offer and thank him, but the truth is, I’m not really here for a sandwich: I’m here for a po-boy.

I’m at Sam’s Food Store, or Sam’s Po-Boys, depending on whether you believe the Google listing or the sign hanging outside the tiny yellow building with the faded Coca-Cola logo. Here, everyone just knows it as Sam’s.

Opened in 1960 by Sam Levatino, the New Orleans grocery store turned po-boy shop sits on a tiny, pothole-littered road in Old Jefferson, a quiet bedroom community that hugs the east bank of the Mississippi River. Levatino’s daughter, Jackie, now runs the shop with her sister and sister-in-law, the three women often showing up before dawn to open at 6 a.m.

EC: assets%2Fmessage-editor%2F1463501918200-breakfast-po-boy-freund

It’s hard to avoid cliché when describing Sam’s, a place where it really does feel like everyone knows your name. It’s the kind of place where customers linger over coffee, chatting with their neighbors while the Dupeire sisters shout out orders, and—as evidenced by my new friend, the college football aficionado—a stranger might offer you half of their meal.

It’s also one of the only po-boy shops in town that opens before 10 a.m., and one of the few where you can get a breakfast version of the iconic New Orleans standby.

Here, Dupeire cooks hot sausage patties on the grill until they reach the color of burnt toffee, then tucks them into French bread halves layered with fluffy eggs and oozing American cheese. If the eager smiles I saw spreading across customers’ faces is any indication, it’s proof that the brittle crusts and soft, airy insides of Leidenheimer loaves are good for much more than just fried seafood.

The po-boy is the quintessential New Orleans sandwich, as ingrained in the city’s culture as the Saints, second-line parades, and corrupt politicians. Though competing narratives exist, most accounts have the sandwich tracing its roots back to the 1920s, when brothers Benjamin and Clovis Martin began feeding striking streetcar workers roast beef and gravy sandwiches from the back of their restaurant.

“Here comes another poor boy!” the kitchen workers would cry out when one of the workers approached, and thus, the city’s best-known sandwich was born.

The most iconic versions include fried shrimp, or fat slices of roast beef, dripping in gravy. “Dressed,” the sandwiches are filled with shredded iceberg lettuce, tomatoes, pickles, and mayonnaise, before getting swaddled in white butcher paper.

Despite their wide appeal, po-boys never really took off as breakfast fodder, and even breakfast sandwiches in other forms were slower to catch on in New Orleans than in other cities.

EC: assets%2Fmessage-editor%2F1463501956122-Johnny%27s

One explanation for New Orleans’s hesitant foray into the world of breakfast sandwiches is that the laissez-faire town has never really been much of a commuter hub. Whereas in cities like New York, Chicago, and Philadelphia, grabbing an egg and cheese on a roll before running to catch the train is part of the daily routine, New Orleanians are a different breed; they take their time and enjoy dining sitting down, often in the company of others. Sunday brunch is a longstanding tradition, and even on weekdays, meeting for breakfast at a restaurant or cafe is commonplace.

“New Orleans is the kind of place that takes the time to eat and likes to make eating a social event,” says Dr. David Beriss, an associate professor of anthropology at the University of New Orleans and an expert on local food culture in the city.

“There’s an assumption that the breakfast sandwich is this thing all over America—whether it takes the form of a Egg McMuffin or a breakfast taco, and there is the assumption that New Orleans must be doing the same thing,” Beriss says. “We have a strong breakfast tradition—it just doesn’t necessarily involve a sandwich.”

Though they may be harder to come by, there are places like Sam’s, or Johnny’s Po-Boys in the French Quarter, another storied institution, where breakfast po-boys exist in their simplest form: eggs, American cheese, and a choice of breakfast meat on French bread. But lately, the breakfast po-boy is slowly popping up in other incarnations across town, and chefs are experimenting with the classic sandwich while embracing change and creativity.

At Elizabeth’s, a popular breakfast haunt in the burgeoning, über-hip Bywater neighborhood, the po-boy meets the breakfast sandwich halfway: thick layers of cheesy eggs and praline-crusted bacon get saddled with lettuce, tomatoes, and a healthy smear of mayonnaise on toasted French bread. At Stanley, which sits on a shady corner of Jackson Square in the heart of the French Quarter, a gussied-up breakfast “poor boy” features toasted French bread topped with soft-poached eggs, thick strips of Canadian bacon, and a marigold-hued Creole Hollandaise sauce.

Perhaps the most obvious example of the po-boy’s evolution can be found at Killer Po-Boys, whose genesis includes a pop-up tucked away in the rear of a raucous dive bar off Bourbon Street. Here, Cam Boudreaux and his wife April Bellow made a strong argument for breaking from the norm, experimenting with new ingredients while still embracing tradition. At their newest location, there’s a clear affinity for breakfast, including an East Coast-leaning smoked salmon po-boy blanketed with creamy rémoulade schmear, and a cheddar omelet and bacon version dripping with garlicky herb aioli.

The real tour-de-force, however, is made with chorizo, which Boudreaux sources locally and cures in-house with cloves and guajillo chili peppers. The bright-red patties are layered on po-boy loaves with smashed avocados, a black bean yard egg scramble, salsa verde, and queso fresco: it’s a sandwich that makes as good as any a case for embracing the breakfast po-boy once and for all.

Back at Sam’s, it’s inching toward 10 a.m., at which point Dupeire will flip off the grill, put the eggs away and get ready for the impending lunch rush. Despite the popularity of her sausage and egg po-boys and other breakfast renditions, it’s the sandwiches saddled with thick, gravy-soaked roast beef and cold-cut layered po-boys that are still her best sellers.

“People want them even at 8 a.m.,” she laughs.

New Orleans is, after all, a town deeply steeped in tradition, and not everyone embraces change: Some po-boy habits just die hard.