March 2007 wasn’t my first trip to New Orleans, I think it was my fifth. It wasn’t even my first trip after the Storm, I’d passed through the previous June on the way from my home in North Mississippi to a summer job in Houston. This trip, the one that started me on the Po-Boy quest, came the following spring, when my job sent me to a conference in New Orleans. After a week of standard convention activities and high rise hotel food, a coworker and I met up with friends of hers for lunch in Uptown.
We ate Po-Boys.
I had shrimp.
It was a pretty big deal, a moment, a culinary epiphany that couldn’t simply be dismissed as a function of my novice experience as a Po-Boy eater. Not that I hadn’t had one before, I’d sampled the cuisine at countless places in North Mississippi offering a sandwich with that famous name. This, however, was my first visit to a true New Orleans Po-Boy shop. If you can remember your first real Po-Boy – that moment when all the world’s sub shops were forever relegated to the position of simple sustenance, a hedge against starvation – then you know the sensation: beautifully fresh shrimp with a perfect fry and the most amazingly flaky bread, bread that transforms anything it embraces and is so good even the soggy crumbs on the paper wrapper are fair game. Properly dressed with mayo, lettuce and tomato, it is a holy experience.
I’ve visited this city many times in the nearly nine years since that occurrence. Sometimes to get away, other times to meet up with friends, but always with the intention of visiting the most iconic of sandwiches. It grew into a quest to try the favorites, roast beef, fried oyster, sausage and of course more shrimp; at Parkway, Tracy’s, Mahoney’s, Felix and many others. I’ve even waded through the mass of people thronging Oak Street during the annual Po-Boy Festival. I’m not an expert on anything, and food is no exception, but I started to develop a real body of knowledge.
In all these trips, and despite my best efforts, I never made it back to that first place. I couldn’t even remember the name (maybe I never knew it?) only that we’d walked upriver for quite a while on Magazine, turning around at Perlis and walking back, ducking into shops the whole way before finally having that transcendent bread, meat and dressing experience.* So basically all I knew was it was on Magazine somewhere between Audubon Park and the Warehouse District. Despite walking and driving this street many times, I never found it. After several years I despaired of never again experiencing the sandwich which was the entire time growing to massive proportions in my mind. Online searches for “best New Orleans Po-Boy” only turned up places I already knew. Maybe it had closed, that began to seem the most likely option.
Last spring, I bought a recently-released restaurant guide, Eat Dat, by Michael Murphy. Sitting in my living room in Mississippi, eagerly scanning the list of best Po-Boys in the appendix, I finally turned up a lead. Most of the places listed where either not on Magazine Street or were already know to me, but #3, Guy’s, was a contender – located in the right place and known for shrimp. That great answerer of questions, Google Street View, showed me a place somewhat like the saliva-encrusted picture burned into my brain. I finally had a name, now all I needed was to get back to New Orleans.
Good Friday 2015 found me cruising down Magazine Street with an old friend who now lives here. When we drive up, I knew I had found the place I’d so often looked for, but Good Friday isn’t the day to end a journey and the Po-Boy quest took us to Domilise instead. My buddy, not emotionally tied to my mission, wanted to try their sandwich and I was curious to see if the gallery of young Manning Polaroids really exists – it does.
Domilise turned out to be memorable, even if not exceptional. We sat at the bar and ordered Po-Boys. Mine, shrimp again, was pretty good, but not dressed like I like it. Whether it ketchup or watery hot sauce, I can’t really remember, but something on there inappropriately tried to steal the show. Worse, the frumpy and suspicious bar tender, perhaps weary of all the college kids renting in this part of town, wouldn’t accept my friend’s beat-up, out-of-state ID. I’m a good guy, so neither of us enjoyed cold adult beverages with our food, and the water was served in slightly elongated tequila shooters. Not all Po-Boy orders end in a transcendent experience.
This fall my girlfriend, Sarah, and I finally moved to New Orleans. Within a few days I made my way back to Guy’s. It was closed. We went back at the end of the week. Still closed. Certain my quest had failed just when the goal was in reach, I scanned the internet for information. Nothing. Search engines reported normal daily hours, so we tried again. This time it was open! The sandwich of my dreams was within reach, the car was legally parked and I was nearly to the door when I realized neither Sarah nor I had any cash. Like so many great local places, cash is the only tender at Guy’s – unless maybe you get chicken on your Po-Boy. Dispirited and not feeling like finding an ATM, we drove on.
Today I finally got that shrimp Po-Boy I’ve been craving. The reunion was all I’d hoped for; it was the same shop, same limited seating and counter ordering, same amazing shrimp Po-Boy. With all the tables full, I carried my prize to the car, briefly admired it like Gollum with his ring, and then commenced to eating. It didn’t disappoint, even after all this time. I’m truly a fan. In addition to great food, Guy’s is also a great story. An article on the wall describes how it was rebuilt after a fire, Eat Dat reports loyal customers chipped in to help with the renovation, a true New Orleans story.
I’m not saying it’s Guy’s is the best Po-Boy; I like Crabby Jacks for slow-roasted duck, Parkway for roast beef, Killer Po-Boys for everything, and Bevi Seaford Company on Carrollton for food even more magical than the fact that is only a 3-block walk. But Guy’s shrimp is nearly impossible to top. Then again, loving an eatery, questing after it as if it were a sacred site or its food a holy relic, isn’t just about taste. The experience adds to the meaning. For me, Guy’s is about the joy of the first great Po-Boy I ever ate and the way it inspired me to try a variety of great places. For others, the true measure of a place may be the friends who gather within, the people who work there, or if you were lucky enough to grow up here, the connection with childhood.
Now that I know how to find Guy’s Po-Boys, I plan to come back often, but the Po-Boy quest isn’t over. There are more places to visit and more styles to try and as I learned about Guy’s some truly classic sandwiches – their’s is chicken parmesan – aren’t even on the menu. I’ve got a lot of Po-Boys to eat.
*Bread is listed first on purpose, whether Leidenheimer or something similarly light, airy, and crispy, bread is what truly sets New Orleans Po-Boys apart.