Clarence and Lefty’s
Clarence and Lefty’s looms large in my personal culinary annals. It was the place where I had my first roast beef poor boy, when I was about ten years old. That sandwich would set the standard for me for the rest of my life. I also credit it as the first step on my long road of eating for pleasure and talking about it.
We are talking about a joint here. It was in the center of the Eighth Ward, in a wedge-shape block between Almonaster and Franklin at Prieur. It made Mother’s look like Commander’s Palace: concrete floors, a bar full of whiskey and cigarette smells, and the kind of characters that Bunny Matthews captures in his cartoons on all the stools and all the table. (In fact, Bunny’s Vic ‘n’ Natly series was inspired, he saiys, by Clarence and Lefty’s.)
My parrain (godfather), Uncle Billy, was one of those characters. He was a longshoreman, burly, gregarious and always laughing. Clarence and Lefty’s was where he drank beer with his buddies every weekend. Dozens of bars like that were scattered throughout the city. Most of them served some kind of food.
Uncle Billy had me in tow one night and took me along to Clarence and Lefty’s. He thought I was too skinny. “I’ll give you something to put some meat on your bones, Tommy!” he said, and ordered up a roast beef poor boy. And there it was: a good foot long, thick with roast beef and drooling with brown gravy.
I took a bite. Uncle Billy smiled, and went back to the bar and his beer. I ate the whole thing. And half of another one. I couldn’t remember loving the flavor of anything this much.
Fifteen or so years passed. I ate many poor boys before I was in Clarence and Lefty’s again. I was there to check out a rumor that this was the best roast beef poor boy in town. It indeed had what I thought of as the classic flavor profile: the perfect balance of meat, gravy, mayonnaise, pickles, etc. In fact, there was something vaguely familiar about the sandwich and the place, but I couldn’t dope it out.
I gave a glowing report about Clarence and Lefty’s on the radio. A couple of days later, Uncle Billy called me. “Hey! I heard you went back to Clarence and Lefty’s! Remember that night I brought you there and you ate two po-boys?” He started laughing. “I told you it was good!”
Fast forward to 1987. Sometime in the 1970s, Clarence and Lefty’s went away. I kept talking about it now and then on the radio with people who liked to reminisce about favorite but extinct restaurants.
One morning I got a call from Alma Bourgeois. “I think you’d know who I am if I told you I’m Mrs. Lefty, of Clarence and Lefty’s,” she said. She then went on to tell me the real recipe for the roast beef as she cooked it. And she was the one who did, every day. It had nothing to do with Coca-Cola in the gravy (a widespread rumor) or anything like that. Her recipe involved fifty pounds of beef, plus other ingredients by the beer mug (a standard measure at Clarence and Lefty’s.
It’s a lot of work, but it’s the only way to reproduce what I still think of as the definitive roast beef poor boy flavor. The recipe is here on our site.