Prodigal Po'boys

There's no sense in arguing: Great po'boys do exist outside New Orleans.

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The Other Guys Seafood Cafe

The Other Guys Seafood Cafe―Texas

Howard L. Puckett

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Thank you, "Delta Dan," for sparking a delicious debate on CoastalLiving.com with this e-grenade: " The po'boy just seems to be a Naw'lins kind of sandwich. I don't think anyone in Alabama, Texas, or certainly Florida knows how to make a po'boy."

Fighting words? Who knew?

A dozen Coastal Living readers who quickly let Dan know otherwise, that's who. We were intrigued. And, as always, hungry for the truth.

Granted, you couldn't get a bad po'boy in New Orleans if you tried. Even the airport makes a pleasantly plump little number, just in case you hadn't already stuffed yourself to the gills before liftoff. But can anyone outside the Crescent City's sphere of influence get it right? Especially as far away as―heaven forbid―Florida?

Truth be known, very few places live up to New Orleans standards: fresh French bread (crusty outside and chewy inside); perfectly fried seafood (hot oil's a must, as is a feather-light coating of flour); undressed or dressed (with mayo, lettuce, and tomato-cocktail or hot sauce optional); and enough seafood nuggets inside to put circus clowns in a Volkswagen to shame. Speaking of shame, that's what places should feel when they try to pass off three shrimp―flattened, encased in breading, then fried to petrification―on a hamburger bun as a "New Orleans-style po'boy."

The good news: After reviewing coastalliving.com readers' tips, our po'boy patrol was pleased to find scrumptious versions way beyond New Orleans' city limits. And, in the meantime, "Delta Dan" admits he's been won over by all those Web-site testimonials: " Y'all are making me hungry. I take back what I said about po'boys outside New Orleans. I wonder if any of these places would Fed-Ex me a sandwich, today!"

Thanks, Dan, for eating your words.

ALABAMA

Bowling snacks never tasted so good as at Captain's Choice at The Gulf Bowl in Foley (a favorite spot for Coastal Living art director Lane Gregory). Here, both the beer and air-conditioning are arctic-perfect accompaniments for an oyster loaf, especially if you're chilling after a hot day on the beach. We counted 11 crisp, large, locally fresh, cornmeal-crusted oysters on our griddle-warmed sandwich ($6.75), with homemade tartar sauce refreshingly present. (So the loaf has sesame seeds―a minor indiscretion considering the care that goes into everything else.) With good food and motherly service, in a convivial bowling alley that's pure space-age '70s, the place has acquired somewhat of a cult following. Open daily for lunch and dinner at 204 E. Michigan Ave., 251/943-4575.

FLORIDA

Yes, you really can find a good po'boy in the Sunshine State, even as far south as Pinellas Park (near St. Petersburg), right next to the sprawling Wagon Wheel Flea Market. The Cajun Cafe on the Bayou is a rollicking spot for displaced Louisianans and all fans of Cajun fare and music. Here, Joe Thibodaux (fittingly from Thibodaux, Louisiana) serves up one of the best crawfish po'boys anywhere. His version features a mound of sweet, crispy crawfish topped with fried onion-ring slivers on locally made bread ($6.95). Pair it with the cafe's live music and festive waterside setting (dancing encouraged) and laissez les bons temps rouler. Open Tuesday through Sunday for lunch and dinner at 8101 Park Blvd., 727/546-6732; cajuncafeonthebayou.olm.net.

LOUISIANA

OK, so the Check-In Check-Out Deli is less than 20 miles northeast of New Orleans, but this local favorite is indeed off the tourist path. Letting us know about it was John Wright on coastalliving.com: " The former Conoco station on Old Spanish Trail in Slidell, Louisiana, has the best po'boys. They run a cup through a pile of shrimp and try to get all 50 or so shrimp into a French bread roll. They fail." But not by much. This no-frills diner (pinball machine in the corner, blaring TV over the counter, tattooed fishermen on lunch break) packs 'em in. "We ain't got gas," said a woman who answered the phone when we called for directions. "But you do have great po'boys, right?" we asked. "Yeah, now that we got." Po'boys here are deliciously varied (there's even a chicken-fried steak and cream gravy version among the 20 options). Stars include the shrimp (sweet and peppery; $6.25) and roast beef (juicy and flavorful; $4.99); they, like the others, are as tightly wrapped as a baby in a blanket. Pick up a Hubig's hand pie for an old-fashioned finale. Open daily for lunch and dinner at 1800 Old Spanish Trail, 985/641-9773.

MISSISSIPPI

Where does New Orleans restaurant-great Ralph Brennan get his po'boys when his family vacations near Bay St. Louis? Benigno's. That's because it's one of the area's best seafood establishments, run by New Orleans native Roy Dedeaux. Across from the picturesque old Amtrak station, Benigno's (pronounced Buh-ning-oh's) serves 17 different po'boys in a friendly general-store setting. (Want a beer? Fetch one from the cooler.) Highlights here are any of the beautifully fried seafood po'boys (shrimp, oyster, catfish, stuffed crab, soft-shell crab; $6.25 to $7.95)―especially served with sweet-potato fries. And don't miss out on Benigno's meaty boiled crabs at the height of their season (summer through fall). Open Monday through Saturday for lunch and dinner at 128 Blaize Ave., 228/466-0105.

TEXAS

One of the state's most innovative restaurants is Beulah's, at the historic Tarpon Inn in Port Aransas (just northeast of Corpus Christi). So it makes sense that its executive chef, Guy Carnathan, can cook a mean po'boy if he so chooses. Fortunately, he so chooses (with chef Randy Brown at the helm) at his more casual restaurant, The Other Guys Seafood Cafe. Even though orders are placed at a counter and the chairs are plastic, everything else here is fish-camp chic (Arts and Crafts light fixtures, glass-block windows, a condiment station with kalamata olives). Corn-flour breaded oysters ($7.95) and shrimp, lightly dusted with fine rice flour and flash-fried for tenderness ($8.95), are both served on real French bread (a rarity for the region). Open Wednesday through Sunday for lunch and dinner at 106 E. Cotter Ave., 361/749-4972.

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