6.18am, Thursday 8th November, Eastex Freeway, Beaumont, Jefferson County, Texas, USA
Morning Seafood Lovers, it’s shrimp season in the Gulf Country, so for the last three days – through Southern Louisiana and South East Texas – I’ve been doing the local ‘Shrimp Po Boy’ thing. Now I’d best explain firstly what a ‘po boy’ is. It’s basically a sandwich with its origins in New Orleans. Back in 1929 there was a strike by the New Orleans streetcar conductors and drivers, and things got quite tight, no compromise from either side for 4 months, and no wages whatsoever. Two brothers – Benny and Clovis Martin – ran a restaurant in the city on St Claude Avenue, and seeing as they used to drive the streetcars, they wanted to help their former colleagues during the strike. So somewhere along the line, they apparently coined the phrase “what will these poor boys eat” and took the scraps of meat from the restaurant, and put them into sections of French bread sticks, soaked in gravy and the cooking drippings. The term ‘poor boy’ shortened to the local one word ‘po boy’ and now, the sandwiches have become 6 inch (half) or 12 inch works of art! In New Orleans, everyone has their favourite po boy place, and they knowingly compare whether they’re ‘dressed’ – which means ‘plus tomato, lettuce, onion, mayo, mustard’ – or not.
Now seeing as it’s shrimp season, it’s all about the shrimp po boy. But you can have the shrimp fried – in seasoned (every house has their own tangy version) corn flour batter; or grilled ; or blackened – which is grilled plus seasoned on a stinking hot dry pan. Then the mustard is hot or mild, the thing is dressed or not – it’s a many and varied thing, as is the number of shrimp that each place tries to get into the sandwich. So having tried grilled and blackened in Louisiana, I went with fried yesterday at the Zydeco Cajun Cafe on Crockett Street here in Beaumont. Now you know you’ve landed in the right spot for lunch when everyone gets out of their car / pickup / truck / minivan / Harley and walks across the road to the same place, with the line out the door at 11.45am in the morning! The Zydeco Cafe does ‘plate lunches’ each day of the week – which is a selection of meat and veg options you can put together, and it changes each day. I went through behind a couple of very beefy working blokes in boots and overalls, and one went for the ‘two piece’ fried chicken plate lunch – one piece was a whole half chicken southern fried style, the second piece a meaty wing – plus ‘two sides’ (your choice of two solid spoonfuls of items from the hot veg selection – mashed potato, fresh creamed corn, steamed spicy green beans, fried breaded okra, whatever’s on that day) – plus a 3 inch cube of either plain or jalapeño laced cornbread! That’s a working mans lunch right there! With the number of blue and white collar boys in the dining room, you know the food at the Zydeco is definitely ‘as good as mama makes’!
I went with the fried shrimp po boy, and took the ‘dressed’ with everything option – adding a dribble of Louisiana’s own ‘Crystal’ hot sauce to half the sandwich. Forget everything you think about hot sauces – Crystal is it! It’s not the strip your mouth heat – it’s the vinegar chili pepper flavor with twang that you want….and that’s Crystal! I will be trying to bring some back to the Barossa – I feel gumbo and po boy nights coming soon in the Valley!! The shrimp were that firm juicy sort of thing that just screams ‘fresh’, and the mustard mayo was really all flavor and not masses of it, so I was thrilled to bits with my choice. The French bread sticks used in the Zydeco’s po boys comes in daily from the Gambino bakery in New Orleans, and it’s special stuff. I reckon it’s got super stretch powers like Elasto- Man to be able to wrap itself around the mountain of shrimp stuffed into the sandwich, and to hold the whole lettuce, tomato, mayo thing together! Good thing really, otherwise you’d end up wearing more than you eat! Not good!
So the Zydeco Cajun Cafe – they’re resisting local pressure to open for dinner, so if you’re within 50 miles of Beaumont, Texas around lunch time – it’s worth making the detour. Exit Interstate I-10 and make the trip. It’s a special place. The ladies behind the servery treat everyone like extended family – I reckon they see a lot of those boys most days of the week so they kind of are – so drop in, have lunch ‘old school’ style, do the plate lunch or the po boy. I guarantee you’ll be glad you did.