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Fulfilling Potential 

Sometimes all it takes is a second visit to see what makes JOHNNY & JOSIE'S a place to cherish.

Sometimes you can taste so much potential in a dish that you wonder how on earth the chef doesn't taste it, too. That was the case the first time I tried the deep-fried seafood boudin po-boy at Johnny & Josie's. The problem was simple -- a lack of seasoning was all -- easily bandaged by a good dousing of Tabasco. But the omission was not at all inconsequential; the blandness caused what sounded like an unforgettable dish to be utterly forgettable. It was such an affront that I flat-out rejected the possibility that a chef who created something so promising would make a practice of messing it up. Call it optimism. Call it overeater's intuition. Just hope it happens the next time you taste unlimited potential in a mediocre dish. It will lure you back to the same restaurant a few days later to order the very same dish again. With any luck, you'll learn what realized potential tastes like.

In the case of Johnny & Josie's deep-fried seafood boudin po-boy, realized potential tastes unlike anything I've eaten before -- except perhaps a little bit like the deep-fried roast beef po-boy appetizer at Jacques-Imo's, but certainly nothing other than that. For the record, this dish will not curb cravings for either boudin or a po-boy. Cut into three roundish slices and most easily eaten with silverware, it's in a league all its own. I can imagine alternate names, like Cajun Chimichanga or Jambalaya Egg Roll. A thin layer of bready cushioning between the outer crust and the stuff inside, however, sets it apart from both chimichangas and egg rolls.

Johnny and Josie's kitchen hollows out about six inches at one end of a po-boy loaf, then crams it full of highly spiced (on days of realized potential, anyway) shrimp jambalaya. A quick dip into baths of egg wash, seasonings like cayenne and paprika, breadcrumbs and hot oil, and you've got a fried-chicken-like exterior crunch, which arouses suspicions that New Orleans-style French bread was meant to be battered and fried all along. Not a trace of oil makes its way inside the jambalaya capsule; ironically, it tastes a lot less like it was deep-fried than a traditional po-boy over-stuffed with individual deep-fried shrimp often does.

It makes sense that an innovation on the po-boy would evolve at a restaurant that was known as Johnny's Po-Boys -- a New Orleans po-boy institution since the first one opened 1950 -- until Nick Rabalais bought it last year. (Johnny's locations still exist in the French Quarter and in Gretna.) He kept half the name and most of the menu, to which he's added his own personality. A Louisiana native, Rabalais traveled Europe, worked in several high-end restaurants and was a chef at the Fairmont Hotel for four years before adopting the mom-n-pop lifestyle across from the Clearview Mall along Veterans Memorial Boulevard. You can tell which guy is Rabalais by looking at the wedding photo displayed on the front counter. You'll recognize his wife behind the register -- for a while at least -- by the backward tilt and the inward glow that the final months of pregnancy bring.

As there's no official table service, you pay at the front counter, find the rare empty table draped in checkered cloth and wait for someone to barrel from the kitchen bellowing the number on your ticket stub. An under-seasoned po-boy could easily slip by the chef during lunch rushes like these. Still, Johnny & Josie's employees wander the peach-painted dining room and are quick to notice when someone needs a fork, a side of tartar sauce or her individual Milky Way bundt cake (with fudge frosting) tossed into the microwave. On a recent visit, this informal system seemed to work out equally well for a man dining solo with a napkin tucked into his collar, another man who had shoved his tie between two buttonholes, and a woman more than twice my age who put away a full oyster po-boy in the 12 minutes that lapsed between finding my seat and receiving my lunch.

If you were to eat at Johnny and Josie's twice a week for the next year, ordering something different each time, you would sample less than half of the menu, which makes a definitive review of the place nearly impossible. I would consider returning for Thursday's darkly fried chicken served with hammy green beans and soft, cheesy macaroni. And judging from the catfish and coaster-size oysters on a seafood muffaletta (olive salad only provided upon request), fried seafood is a safe bet. I didn't, however, taste much potential in the chewy roast beef po-boy one employee recommended. Similarly, gumbo was lukewarm and chunky in the wrong places, and a creamy shrimp pasta was meant for someone whose favorite part about a cream pasta is the cream.

Johnny & Josie's motto, "Where Food Makes People Happy," is a goofy little saying stuck to the back of staff T-shirts. It doesn't mean much ... until it refers to something as extraordinary as a spicy deep-fried seafood boudin po-boy, in which case it can mean everything.

click to enlarge Diners give their order, take their seats and then happily wait for their number to be called in the bustling JOHNNY & JOSIE'S on Veterans Memorial Boulevard. - CHERYL GERBER
  • Cheryl Gerber
  • Diners give their order, take their seats and then happily wait for their number to be called in the bustling JOHNNY & JOSIE'S on Veterans Memorial Boulevard.
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