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When longtime locals discuss contenders for “best all-around po’boy shop in all of New Orleans,” R&O’s is usually an integral part of the conversation. Fans of the stalwart seafood house located a literal stone’s throw from Lake Pontchartrain will wax poetic about a wide variety of the menu’s delectable standouts – Italian salads studded with tangy chopped giardiniera, oversized stuffed artichokes, seasonal boiled seafoods – before they even start talking po’boys.

However, once the conversation turns to the city’s signature long-sandwich, the accolades come in fast and strong. Want a classic shrimp, oyster or soft-shell crab po’boy? They’ll arrive overstuffed, crunchy and fried to juicy perfection. Jonesing for something that leans more red-sauce Sicilian? Choose from meatball, mozzarella-topped Parmesan (chicken, eggplant, veal or combo), Italian sausage variations doused in flavorful marinara (usually called “red gravy”). And then, of course, there’s the roast beef.

The New Orleans roast beef po’boy is the regionally distinct sleeper hit of seafood-heavy sandwich culture. If the words “roast beef” trigger images of juicy, medium-rare slabs sensuously carved from a soft-focus prime rib, well…this is a different (and arguably better) version. Any “beef” in southern Louisiana will likely come from the “debris” school of overcooking. Instead of distinct, whisper-thin slices, this beef has spent hours in an oven, slow-cooking until the roast’s structure melts away into tenderness. (The runaway morsels that fall into the roasting pan, then deeply caramelize, are the “debris” in local parlance.)

Among dedicated fans, R&O’s beef po’boy is the stuff of legend – the chunky, deeply flavored gravy is somehow beefier than a fine T-bone, in a way that suits a working-class sandwich. Other standout examples of the form (Parkway Bakery in Midcity, Tracey’s and Parasol’s in the Irish Channel, Johnny’s in the Quarter) do a solid job with both meat and gravy, but miss a critical textural component on the plate. A proper R&O po’boy balances the debris’ trademark flood tide of flavorful gravy with a crisp-toasted French bread base – giving the sandwich a structural integrity that keeps it from disintegrating in a sloppy mess after the second or third bite. (Not that there’s anything wrong with a good sloppy beef, but once you’ve had R&O’s, you level up in terms of textural awareness).

The restaurant sits in a far-flung neighborhood called Bucktown, which isn’t even in New Orleans proper, but right across the border in adjacent Jefferson Parish. Historically, Bucktown was part of Lake Pontchartrain’s working waterfront – a rough-and-tumble zone where the shrimp trawlers docked, the seafood processing plants flourished, and dock workers went for companionship and gambling-related diversions. Before the Lake Pontchartrain Causeway allowed cars to drive 30 miles over the brackish inland sea, railroads brought affluent New Orleanians to lake steamers that ferried passengers to the then-faraway North Shore.

Among dedicated fans, R&O’s beef po’boy is the stuff of legend.

Since 1980, R&O’s has been a fixture of Bucktown’s casual-seafood scene, far enough away to avoid a Quarter-centric tourist crush but always doing a brisk enough business to ensure a 20-minute wait during peak lunch and dinner shifts. A concrete wraparound entryway – featuring not one but two carnival claw games and a vintage Galaga video console – feeds the perpetually bustling, no-frills dining room. The name is so phonetically close to Arnaud’s, an Old Line French Quarter Creole restaurant, which can occasionally lead to confusion in loud bars (where “What’s your favorite po’boy?” conversations often occur). If a conventioneer is going to go get this life-changing po’boy, the best bet is to catch it on the way to or from Louis Armstrong International Airport – it’s that far out.

For a time, R&O’s included the subtitle “Pizza Place and Restaurant” (currently the descriptors are “Restaurant and Catering”), and the pizza might be the key to understanding it’s roast beef’s trademark flavor and texture profile. When your sandwich spends time in a pizza oven, the end result is distinctively savory with gravy pleasantly reduced by oven heat and another layer of caramelized flavor adding to the cool crunch of shredded lettuce, thick mayonnaise and tomato slices (a standard condiment combination that New Orleanians call “dressed”). Add a little Crystal hot sauce if you think it needs a little bit of kick, but either way, you’re in for a beefy epiphany in every sesame-seeded mouthful.

The primal joy of R&O’s rich, peppery gravy is not strictly limited to the po’boy section of the menu. One decadent move is to start a meal with an order of “gravy fries” (resist the option of cheese, it’s just a distraction) and a pitcher of draft Abita to wash it down. Fried potatoes with chunks of delicious beef are the childhood fantasy you never knew you had.

The gravy is also an integral component of many off-menu combinations that savvy diners have concocted and codified over the years (similar to In-N-Out burger secret menu culture). Fans of the classic “beef and oysters” combo can order a perfectly-fried oyster po’boy and a side cup of that beautiful gravy for a decadent dunking experience. The standard Italian salad – heavy on the garlic, studded with olives and marinated artichoke hearts – layered thick on a po’boy adds mind-blowing layers of flavor.

Pescatarians can, of course, choose from a wide variety of boiled or fried seafood, in sandwich form or an unassumingly-named “seafood platter,” which amounts to a flash-fried trencherman’s feast the size of a minor mountain range.

Whatever you order, it’s a few bites in that you notice an integral part of the R&O’s table setup. Towering over the retro-style cracker basket (it is a seafood house, after all) and 3-sweetener packet caddy (iced tea culture rules here) is a full-sized roll of industrial-grade paper towels, vertically presented on a durable wooden dowel. No dainty trifold napkins here – food this immersive and gravy-laden requires a clean-as-you-go ethos, and the tools to make it possible.

Halfway through the meal, you’ll get into the habit of wiping up after every other bite. And if you’re visiting from out of town, you’ll start integrating a stop at R&O’s into your airport routine; either coming, going, or – if you’re truly dedicated to the good stuff – both.

Pableaux JohnsonPableaux Johnson

Published on June 01, 2022

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