Of all the delicious meals I have had the pleasure of eating in New Orleans, by far my favorite is a drippy, sloppy, saucy roast beef po' boy. Perhaps lesser known than its fried seafood sibling, I much prefer the garlicky slow-cooked sandwich swimming in its own rich, roux-thickened gravy.
The po' boy (or poor boy, if you will) is the reigning king of New Orleans sandwiches. Created and named during the street car strike of 1929, it can be filled with anything from potatoes to shrimp or oysters to ham, so long as it is tucked inside a loaf of soft, squishy (preferably freshly baked) French bread.
There is something about the roast beef po' boy in particular that won me over at first bite. I mean, how can I resist chunky bits of beef melting in my mouth, its juices running down my chin and dripping on my lap. You know something is good when you couldn't care in the least!
One thing's for sure, everyone that's had one (NOLA natives in particular) has a favorite type. There are a few different methods for preparing the roast beef — from thinly sliced and layered, to pot-roast style, where the slow cooked meat is shredded or chopped, and most famously (and perhaps most hard to come by) those using "debris," which is essentially a hearty gravy made up of bits of meat and char that have fallen from the roast.
I've been experimenting with my version of roast beef po' boys using the 'pot roast' style, essentially, for quite some time. Originally I overcomplicated things by adding all sorts of nontraditional ingredients to the mix and thinking that more add-ins meant more flavor. I've come back around though, with the realization that less if often best. (Bacon is one of my changes that stuck, because, I mean, how could it hurt?)
Top round is my preferred cut (followed by chuck), which is then slow-cooked in a flavorful sauce made up of garlic, onions, red wine, and stock. The sauce is thickened up with a flour and butter-based roux, to which the shredded meat is added back to create the ultimate gravy.
You can eat your po' boy plain or "dressed," which has the addition of lettuce, tomato, mayonnaise, and maybe a few dill pickles. As for me, I like mine with lots of mayo and a slice of provolone cheese. If you want to truly go New Orleans style, serve with an ice cold root beer to wash it all down. And don't forget a pile of napkins!
Roast Beef Po' Boys
Makes about 6 sandwiches
For the beef filling:
2 to 3 pounds beef top round or chuck roast
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
1/2 pound thick cut bacon, diced, about 6 slices
1 sweet onion, chopped
1/2 cup dry red wine
3 cups low sodium beef, veal, or chicken stock, or a mix
5 large cloves garlic, smashed
2 teaspoons Worcestershire sauce
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
3 tablespoons all purpose flour
French baguettes or hoagie rolls
Provolone cheese (optional)
Pat the beef dry with paper towels and season generously with salt and pepper.
Set a large Dutch oven or heavy skillet over medium-high to high heat. Add the bacon and cook for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally, until fat is rendered and bacon is starting to turn golden brown. Remove the bacon pieces with a slotted spoon and transfer to the bowl of a slow cooker.
Add the beef to the skillet with the bacon grease and sear until golden brown, about 10 minutes per side; transfer to the bowl of the slow cooker. Pour off all but 1 to 2 tablespoons of the bacon fat. Reduce heat to medium. Add the onions and cook until translucent, about 5 minutes.
Return the heat to high. Pour in the wine and reduce by half, stirring to loosen any brown bits on the bottom of the pan. Transfer the wine mixture to the bowl of the slow cooker.
Add the stock, garlic, and Worcestershire sauce to the slow cooker and close the lid. Cook on low heat for 7 hours (or high heat for 4 hours).
When done, remove the meat from the cooker and shred with two forks. Chop to desired texture and set aside.
Meanwhile, melt the butter in a large Dutch oven of heavy skillet on medium heat until foaming. Add the flour and cook, stirring constantly, until it turns a shade of amber and gives off a nutty smell.
Pour the cooking liquid from the slow cooker into the skillet with the roux. Bring to a boil then reduce heat to a simmer. Cook the gravy until thickened, 10 to 15 minutes. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Stir the chopped meat into the gravy, taste, and adjust any seasonings if necessary.
To assemble the po' boys, slather the bread with a generous amount of mayonnaise. Top with shredded meat and gravy. Serve with shredded lettuce and tomatoes, if desired.
(Images: Nealey Dozier)