Roast Beef Poor Boys
The poor boy sandwich is one of the essential flavors of New Orleans, and the roast beef is the king of the poor boys. The sandwich was invented in the mid-1920s during a streetcar strike. Bennie and Clovis Martin, owners of a busy restaurant on the corner of Touro and St. Claude, helped the “poor boys” on the picket lines by making a sandwich on French bread of roast beef gravy and all the little bits of beef that came with it. It was filling and delicious, and at a nickel apiece affordable. After the strike was over, sliced beef was added to the gravy and the price went up to a lofty dime. All that was left was for the John Gendusa Bakery to devise an extra-long loaf of French bread, uniform in cross section, specifically for making poor boys. The sandwich–soon stuffed not only with roast beef but about anything else you can imagine–became so popular that the restaurant renamed itself “Martin’s Poor Boy Restaurant” (not po-boy, although that has become the more common spelling).
Making roast beef for poor boys is more about making gravy than roasting beef. Inside round seems to taste best, but some cooks like eye of round or even ribeyes. It’s best to cook the beef the day before, because it will throw off lots of good juices for the gravy, and the cold beef will be easier to slice. You can keep the gravy in a well-sealed container in the refrigerator for a few weeks, or freeze it for even longer storage.
The most critical step in making a roast beef poor boy is to put the whole, assembled sandwich into a hot oven for two or three minutes before serving it. The flavor and aroma of the toasted French bread doubles the goodness.
- 4-6 lbs. inside round of beef, trimmed
- 1 large onion, quartered
- 4 rib celery, cut up
- 1 whole bulb of garlic, peeled and cut in half
- 2 medium carrots, cut up
- 2 bay leaves
- 1/2 tsp. thyme
- 1/2 tsp. marjoram
- 1/4 tsp. black peppercorns
- 1 Tbs. Worcestershire sauce
- 1 to 3 Tbs. all-purpose flour
- 3 loaves poor boy bread, or 6 French baguettes
- 1 head lettuce, shredded coarsely
- 8 tomatoes, sliced thinly
- Dill pickle slices
1. Season the beef round with salt and pepper. Put it in a Dutch oven or kettle filled about half way up with water. Add the onion, celery, garlic, carrots, bay leaves, thyme, marjoram, and peppercorns. Roast it, uncovered, at 350 degrees for four to five hours, turning the roast and adding water every hour or so. The water level should slowly drop, but don’t let it get less than about two inches deep. The beef is ready when a meat thermometer pushed into the center of the beef reads 160 degrees.
2. Remove the roast from the pot and place in a pan that will catch all the juices that come out as it cools. If you’re cooking a day ahead (recommended), wrap the beef and refrigerate it as soon as it’s cooled to room temperature. In any case, wait at least an hour before slicing.
3. Strain the solids from the stock in the pot. Bring the stock to a simmer. After removing excess fat, add all the juices that come from the roast, as well as the crumbs of beef that fall off as you slice it. Skim off the fat that rises to the surface. Cook to a light gravy consistency. (This also benefits from being made a day ahead, and cooling in the refrigerator.)
4. When you’re ready to make sandwiches, bring the gravy to a simmer and whisk in the flour (but only if the gravy appears to need thickening). Add salt, pepper and Worcestershire to taste. (It’s a common practice in New Orleans to add Kitchen Bouquet to darken the sauce, but I never do.)
5. Slice the roast beef as thin as possible and put as much as you want on fresh French bread with lettuce, tomatoes, mayonnaise, and dill pickles. Spoon on all the gravy the sandwich can hold. After assembling the sandwich, put the whole thing into a 400-degree oven for about a minute to toast the bread.
Makes twelve to eighteen poor boys.