The Mid-City po-boy shop is best known for its roast beef, and the most exotic item on the wall-mounted menu is alligator sausage. But listen as the orders come in during one of the always-busy lunch shifts and you'll hear an encyclopedic list of customized po-boy options. There's fried oysters with roast beef gravy or catfish with cheese, butter and pickles. Some opt for a ham po-boy, grilled and dressed with Swiss and lettuce only, and others go for a hot sausage link po-boy with tomatoes and extra pickles, hold the mayo.
One Sunday afternoon, three ladies dressed as though they had lately been at mass each ordered their own version of the shrimp po-boy, a bag of Zapp's potato chips and a Barq's longneck. In the barroom up front, an elderly couple worked through a pair of turkey po-boys, soaking them with Crystal hot sauce as if they were watering the lawn, and washed them down with small glasses of milk.
If you've been eating po-boys most of your life -- as it appears Parkway's many regulars have -- perhaps it's natural to find precisely the combination of filling, condiments and extras that hits you just right. Parkway is precisely the right place to get them.
It's been a long road for Parkway, which had been in business for much of the last century before fading away and coming back to life. Today, it provides the kind of example the city is in dire need of: proof that a humbled New Orleans institution can be resurrected, changed for the better and embraced as warmly as ever by locals.
There is the building itself, decorated with enough memorabilia to transform the check-out line into a walk down memory lane for people of the right age. But Parkway does a lot more than pine for the old days. On Thursday, Friday and Saturday evenings, the place comes alive as local blues, jazz and zydeco bands turn the covered patio into something with more of the intimacy of a house party than a music club. The shows are early and free, and children are welcome.
Anchoring everything are the po-boys. That's what keeps Parkway packed during lunch when seemingly every workday uniform in the city is represented around the dining room -- from cops and utility workers to bankers in shirtsleeves, clergy and high school kids.
The roast beef po-boy is the star attraction. It achieves the magic great food strives for in transcending its individual components. Even from the first bite, the airy French bread, beef and mellow gravy have all melded into something that is complete and whole unto itself and seems to flow into your mouth on its own momentum. It is literally hard to put the po-boy down, and the only reason to do so is to gather fresh napkins.
The fried seafood is fine, but meat is the specialty at Parkway. Both turkey and ham po-boys, usually unheralded elsewhere, are excellent. The high quality cold cuts are especially good when ordered grilled, with the meat cooked right on the griddle and allowed to crisp at the edges before being put into the bread with whatever condiment combination the customer has dreamed up. The hamburger po-boy is large and conventional, but the meatball po-boy -- a frequent special -- is immensely satisfying, with the soft, whole meatballs nestled in the loaf with smooth, mildly seasoned tomato sauce.
Sides are basic. The potato salad is chunky and nicely tart, while the chili should really only be used as another customization option for po-boys and not ordered on its own. The French fries are best when soaked with roast beef gravy (go figure) but are not exciting on their own.
The great bread here comes from Leidenheimer Baking Co., and the word "bakery" in the restaurant's name remains as an homage to the past. Parkway was opened in 1922 as a bakery that evolved into a po-boy shop. In its first heyday, the place kept very late hours and was a popular post-gig joint for jazz musicians, a natural stop for gamblers en route to the Fair Grounds Race Course and a lunch spot for workers at the sprawling American Can Co. just across Bayou St. John. In 1970, the local food critic Richard Collin described Parkway as "one of the best and certainly the seediest of the fine poor boy restaurants in town."
Parkway closed in 1995 in a funk of poor spirits. A newspaper account of the place in its last years quotes long-time customers who had moved to the suburbs bemoaning a decline in the neighborhood and the owners' resignation that that the end of the restaurant was near.
A few years later, the old building fell into the hands of a skilled builder with a serious nostalgic streak. Jay Nix, a contractor, lived nearby and initially bought the property just to keep it from becoming blighted. Eventually he came around to the idea of reopening the place himself as a revamped Parkway, which he did in 2003.
After Katrina, floodwater lapped at bar level inside Parkway, but Nix set up travel trailers in its parking lot to house himself and his employees and started fixing his restaurant. The trailers are still there, and the houses surrounding the place are in the throes of heavy renovation. On busy nights when the bands are rocking, parents sling beers, eat po-boys and watch as their young children dance and play, as comfortable in the strange surroundings as if trailers, homes balanced on lifting jacks and blues music go together as naturally as oysters, roast beef gravy and French bread.