If you want a real taste of New Orleans, first strike up a conversation with Little Jewel of New Orleans proprietor and chef Marcus Christiana-Beniger, an energetic man of Sicilian heritage and native of The Big Easy. He’ll be the first to tell you that if you want proper beignets, you’ll skip tourist-ridden Café Du Monde and head to Morning Call in the Metairie or City Park. And that Brocato’s has the best damn Italian fig cookies and Cassata cake you could ever get your hands on. “Every Italian will say the same thing.”
But if you can’t catch the next flight to Louis Armstrong International, the next best thing might be to sink your teeth into Christiana-Beniger’s Big M Po’ Boy, a sandwich so massive in size that you could potentially cradle it like a baby. “There’s this movement to class up Southern food, but I don’t really buy into that,” he says. Look along the grocery aisles and you’ll see what he means: Blue Runner cans of gumbo base, Konriko rice, Abita root beer, all classics in their own right. House-made tasso, boudin, and andouille sausage can be found in a display case at the deli counter. Which, luckily for you and me, means that the details of what make a worthy Po’ Boy are not overlooked.
The M Po’ Boy features roast beef cooked low and slow in a French convection oven–called the Montague–at 250 degrees for ten and a half hours. As the meat tenderizes, Christiana-Beniger salvages the juices to make a “debris gravy.” Mixed into the sandwich are plump, double-battered shrimp and oysters dusted with corn flour and cornmeal, which help protect the fry coating from slipping off; it is a wet sandwich, after all. The crunch you detect is not lettuce, but actually cabbage, a small tribute to the Irish Channel Po’Boy spots in New Orleans. As Christiana-Beniger says, why throw hot food on lettuce to have it wilt?
Two key ingredients are shipped directly from New Orleans. One is the Blue Plate Mayo, the other is French bread from Leidenheimer Baking Company. Blue Plate’s mayo is thicker and tangier, which make it a perfect candidate in a sandwich straining to contain its juicy goodness. To give a true experience of NOLA, there are some things you don’t mess with, he says—Best Foods and Hellmann’s simply don’t get the job done.
The French bread is really a German interpretation of a French baguette (“look at the names on the bag: Binder, Leidenheimer”). It is wonderfully structured: light and fluffy on the inside with a crispy exterior that gives you just enough of a tactile advantage to hold the bread firmly. Artisanal bread, he explains, would be too chewy. “It takes many resources to do this the right way, but I wouldn’t have opened this place if I were getting bread from Los Angeles. It’s the big M, and it weighs,” laughs Christiana-Beniger.
Little Jewel of New Orleans, 207 Ord St., Chinatown, 213-620-0461