Post by Scott Crawford on Jun 15, 2013 19:04:33 GMT -6
"The BIG & little differences of a Chicago poor boy"
I now live in Chicago, and one of the starkest differences I find between Chicago and New Orleans is the efficiency of the first and the inefficiency of the second. In less than nine month's time, I saw an empty lot turn into a nearly completed 20+ story hospital building. Meanwhile, it took over five years to complete the improvements to the Causeway I-10 overpass in Metairie. Chicago is efficient. New Orleans is inefficient.
While efficiency is good in many regards, the quick pace of life in Chicago leads people to look forward more than stop, smell the roses, and contemplate a little about from whence they've come. Some people call the city of New Orleans a decaying museum, and after living elsewhere, I can see how such a description works. New Orleans profoundly cares about its past. Looking back, preserving what is behind us, and living in the present define the culture of the Crescent City. Consider how New Orleanians still use defunct landmarks as points of reference: where the old D.H. Holmes was; where K&B was; where Brunings was; etc. "Aint Dere No More" is more than a song of pride; it's a way of life. In Chicago, if it isn't here today, it simply does not exist. Such is life in a transient, prosperous, growing city.
The import New Orleanians place on their past is rarely as deeply felt as it is when it comes to food. New Orleanians scavenger garage sales looking for ancient local cookbooks and dining guides like The Underground Gourmet. Recipes are passed down from generation to generation. Parents teach their children how many minutes to let the crabs soak in a boil and when to start soaking the beans on Sunday night. The city's flagship restaurants have the same menus as they did fifty years ago. And poor boys today are measured against poor boys from poor boy shops that haven't existed in decades, places like Clarence and Lefty's, Teddy's Grill, and Lloyd's Bar. Remaining faithful and authentic to the past matters to New Orleanians.
The Chicago ethos is entirely foreign. Faithfulness to the past is jettisoned for progress and popular trends. At least, that's what I found today on my trip to BIG & littles, an expansive, multi-room restaurant that boasts of having the "best po-boys in Chicago." Sitting on an unremarkable corner a stone's throw from Le Cordon Bleu College on a street named Orleans, maybe this place was an island of home culture in this sea of uncertainty and concrete. It certainly had that feel while standing in that serpentine, sweaty line. One man in a bright yellow shirt that matched the awning near the entrance shared with me: "Everything here's great. You gotta try the fish and chips." The excitement of eating was palpable in that queue, a feeling I do not often feel outside New Orleans.
The menu was chalked up above the register where Gary Strauss, the BIG owner, who wasn't that big, took my order. When I axed for a shrimp poor boy, dressed, no mayo, he asked for more clarification. I figured if he would have borrowed the name of our food, he might have also borrowed the lingo. No such luck.
As I sat at the counter waiting for the order, I scanned the walls, naked except for a large plastic blue crab and advertisements for Guy Fiere's TV show, which apparently filmed here. The building was repurposed however long ago, and so it has a vibe of a hip Austin garage shop turned taco stand. Tables are decked with hot sauces ranging from Latino sauces to a Louisiana hot sauce I'd never heard of. Crystal, BIG & little's, that's what we put our own poor boys!
The sandwich I picked up from the counter, however, would not need any hot sauce. Unlike authentic poor boys, a rather spicy cocktail sauce was the protocol. A very tasty sauce, it approached the overpowering threshold. Not a bad tweaking to tradition, though. I liked.
Then came the toppings. A traditional poor boy comes with lettuce, tomato, pickle, and mayo, or "dressed" as we say. The pickles added to this sandwich were Chicago-style, thick and gourmet tasting. They would have been a great addition to a turkey sandwich, but not a poor boy. Poor boy pickles should be paper thin and of the cheapest variety. They should leave only a hint of vinegary tart and crunch. These pickles crunched like a cracking potato chip interrupting a quiet room.
Then an inspection of the shrimp. Seven shrimp. Really? I can go get an overflowing foot-long shrimp poor boy at Danny & Clyde's gas station for 6.99. These seven shrimp cost $11. Come on, BIG & little's. To be fair, they were large shrimp, very tasty as well. But they were not poor boy shrimp. The batter was reminiscent of a batter that went for London fish and chips batter with a hint of American-Chinese sweet and sour shrimp batter: puffy and skin-like. It was a far cry from the lemony flour, rub-off-on-your-fingers batter of New Orleans fried shrimp.
Perhaps most important was the bread. Bread is huge in sandwich differentiation. Throw corned beef, sauerkraut, and Russian dressing on Italian bread, and Reuben loyalists will brandish you a heretic. So it is with poor boys. New Orleanians are adamant and proud about their French bread, a bread that is crispy to the touch, but whose middle is airy and crunchy when hot. If the outer portion doesn't flake into a million pieces while eating, and your jaw isn't at least a little sore after the meal, it's not New Orleans French bread. And if it's not New Orleans French bread, it's not a poor boy. Unfortunately, this bread wasn't. It was a soft, doughy Italian bread that does the wonderful Chicago Italian beef sandwiches justice. It does not do justice to the New Orleans poor boy, a sandwich that traces its origin back to a labor union strike in 1920s New Orleans. It is the only known food in American history known to have origins in a labor union strike.
As I finished my shrimp sandwich and Cajun fresh-cut fries (why is everything that is over-seasoned with Cayenne considered Cajun now?), I considered how this sandwich pays little respect to its namesake. It would not pass muster in New Orleans. A very good shrimp sandwich? Yes. A shrimp poor boy? No. But that's summing up Chicago and New Orleans' differences in a nutshell. Chicago is reaching for the future, trying to create something new, something better. New Orleans is idling, or frolicking, in the past, trying to preserve what was once, and much of the time still is, beautiful.
BIG & little's
860 Orleans Avenue
Chicago, IL 60610