Any review of Po’ Boys and Pickles should start with a thought somewhere along the lines of, “I never expected a little sandwich shop on Forest Ave to be making anything even remotely similar to what I think of as an authentic New Orleans Po’ Boy, but my goodness, wasn’t I pleasantly surprised.”
Unfortunately, I can’t begin our review this way for two reasons. First, anyone who has spent any time reading Portland area food writing knows, from the very beginning, that Po’ Boys and Pickles is no slouch when it comes to frying up seafood and laying it on a roll. And second, I don’t have any idea what “authentic” New Orleans Po’ Boys are like, at all. Sure, I spent the weekend in New Orleans once, hanging off of balconies and soaking myself in sickly-sweet, syrupy Hurricanes served in comically oversized novelty cups. Why, I once even drove a U-Haul through the Southern states. But I don’t know my remoulade from my tarter sauce. When I think of the sandwiches I’ve eaten down South that fit the “Po’ Boy” description, my memory calls up ridiculously oversized sandwiches, flooded with some kind of white sauce, and three or four gigantic fried oysters, that either explode burning ocean into your mouth on first bite, or are chewy to the point of making the whole sandwich-eating experience frustrating and confusing.
In spite of what I thought I knew about Po’ Boys and Pickles from coverage in other local area food blogs, I was still pleasantly surprised by the atmosphere of the restaurant. There are a few tables outside, to soak up some of this last late-Summer weather. Where I expected, for whatever reason, a cold, gray, cafeteria atmosphere on the inside, we were instead greeted by a very friendly, outgoing staff, in an open kitchen working underneath several giant black chalkboards, with the menu scrawled in chalk in an appropriately New Orleans-style, wacky handwriting.
We ordered two “regular” sized Po’ Boys, one oyster, and one shrimp. (Okay, to be clear, I ordered “Poor Boys,” which always makes me feel silly, but not as silly as I think I would feel saying “Po’ Boys” out loud. Look, I don’t say, “Nawlins,” either. Why? Because I don’t talk that way. And frankly, neither do you.) A side of fried pickles, a Brooklyn lager, and a Capt. Eli’s Root Beer later, and we were in for $23.54 .
After about 10 minutes, one of the staff brought our lunches to the table. Jillian’s oyster Po’ Boy wasn’t like anything I had seen. Instead of big, wet oysters with soggy breading clinging limply to a bun, Jillian’s sandwich was piled high with little round balls of fried perfection. The oysters were small enough to make the fried-batter-outside-to-soft-salty-inside ratio exactly perfect. Similarly, my shrimp were the ideal size: not big enough to need two bites, but not those sad little 70-count flavorless “cocktail” shrimp, either. Like the oysters, the shrimp were seasoned nicely, battered in cornmeal, and fried precisely the right amount, with good color and crunch.
Both sandwiches were topped with cool, crunchy iceberg lettuce, and slices of ripe tomato, which was a bit of a surprise for this time of year. The bread hit a nice middle ground between the kind of soft hero rolls I am used to seeing in these parts, and the kind of baguette that would be too crusty and chewy for this kind of sandwich. These rolls had a nice bit of resistance on the outside, which gave way to just enough chew in the middle.
Each sandwich was topped with a satisfying smear of sauce; red pepper mayo on Jillian’s oyster sandwich, and tartar sauce on my shrimp. I would be hard pressed to describe the difference between the two sauces, however, there isn’t enough to overwhelm, and I don’t think of either sauce as being the star of the sandwich. The main event, here, is the fried seafood, and it’s nice to see a sauce that doesn’t compete with that or turn your sandwich into a big, gloppy mess. Po’ Boys and Pickles also makes sure each table has a bottle of Crystal hot sauce, if you want to dial up the spiciness of your sandwich.
Regarding the pickles: We weren’t blown away by the basket of fried pickles, battered, fried, and served with both a whole grain mustard and some kind of mystery, creamy-cool dipping sauce. They were fried nicely, but cut into chips, which resulted in kind of a dry pickle. I prefer my fried pickles cut in spears; they stay a little burstier, and you can freak out your mouth with the unexpected sensation of warm dill spear. The small cup of pickles that accompany each Po’ Boy, however, were delightful: sliced thinly, and not overly brined. Each pickle chip made my cheeks pucker with vinegary goodness, and the contrast with the salty fried shrimp was wonderful.
So the big question: Is Po’ Boys and Pickles serving authentic New Orleans-style fried seafood Po’ boys? Who knows? Po’ Boys and Pickles is, however serving unbelievably delicious, crunchy oyster and shrimp sandwiches, with a lot of thought and care given to both the menu, the food, and your experience. We were asked no less than three times by the staff if we enjoyed everything, not because they were pushy, but because the staff at Po’ Boys and Pickles seems to genuinely care about what they’re doing and the kind of food they’re producing. A “how was everything, folks” isn’t a gesture of restaurateur politeness; at Po’ Boys and Pickles, it is a genuine expression of curiosity about your experience, and that investment in both its customers and the quality of its food will make sure we return again and again.
Po’ Boys and Pickles: 1124 Forest Ave, Portland, ME 04103. (207) 518-9735. poboysandpickles.com.