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Meaty Issues 

A truly great roast beef po-boy may be elusive, but the ones at SAMMY'S MARKET AND DELI rank among the best.

A great roast beef po-boy is hard to find. The elements seem so simple -- roast beef, gravy, dressing and bread. With a couple of bakeries supplying almost every po-boy shop in New Orleans, if the bread isn't stale then it's normally up to snuff. It's hard to go wrong with the dressing, as long as the mayo is spread thick. The gravy, however, is the first test. Too many places settle for a thick glop of gravy poured straight from a jar. It's the meat itself, however, that makes a top-notch roast beef po-boy rarer than its shrimp, oyster or hot sausage brethren. Nothing pre-packaged or purchased will do. The roast beef must be made right there at the restaurant.

While searching for more good sources of roast beef po-boys, I got a tip from a friend with impeccable taste. "You have to try Sammy's roast beef po-boys," he said. "They're super sloppy!"

Look up "roast beef po-boy" in an encyclopedia, and you might find the definition illustrated with a photo of Sammy's classic version. Slices of moist, homemade roast beef are dressed with a mountain of mayo and several ladles of thin, full-flavored beef drippings. There is nothing subtle about the taste of this sandwich -- it's all about beef. Some people measure their roast beef po-boys by the number of napkins needed to eat one. I can report that I used six as my half po-boy gushed gravy in all directions. It's fair to assume that a full-sized po-boy would be sloppy enough to soak a dozen.

Sammy's sits on a tree-lined residential street in Bucktown, just a few blocks from the well-known seafood restaurants that cluster around the Lakefront levee. From the outside, Sammy's looks like the kind of small grocery store found hidden away in many New Orleans neighborhoods. Inside, the room is surprisingly big. Tables covered in bright red-and-white-checkered tablecloths extend from the deli in the back almost to the front door. It looks like the deli's tables have crowded out, one by one, the grocery store's aisles of potato chips and canned goods.

At lunch, the tables are filled with an even mix of construction workers and men in ties. Green, white and red stripes running along the top edge of the walls announce an allegiance to Italy. Inflatable beer signs hang from the ceiling. Near the register, a plastic cooler is always stocked with bottles of Barq's root beer. Sammy's, as one of my friends remarked, is a slice of Metairie Americana.

Sammy's is more than just a grocery-store deli. All the standard po-boys -- including shrimp, oyster, hot sausage and hamburger -- are available. But the menu of po-boys also includes trout and a meaty veal cutlet that almost rivals the outstanding roast beef po-boy. Half of a massive muffaletta can be had for less than $5. The muffaletta was served unheated and layered thick with top-quality meat and cheese. Although the Binder muffaletta bread was a little dry at first, it did an excellent job of soaking up the oil from the olive-salad spread without becoming soggy.

The menu also includes daily specials, such as spaghetti, hamburger steak and red beans and rice, several salads and plenty of fried seafood. The fried seafood platter at Sammy's, in fact, could hold its own with any served in Bucktown. For a little more than $10, Sammy's serves a massive plate of perfectly fried shrimp, trout, oysters and catfish with a stuffed crab. In fact, I would recommend anything that comes out of Sammy's deep fryer. The onion rings were flaky and sweet. Fried pickles were cut just thick enough to strike a balance between the crisp exterior and the sour brine inside.

The desserts at Sammy's are homey and satisfying. They are the kind of sweets that often remind people of their mother's cooking. An amazing brownie had a dark, fudge-like interior full of chocolate chips. The enormous banana pudding, with its thick layer of whipped cream and pudding separated by vanilla wafers, was a classic homemade-style dessert.

Sammy's, which opened nine years ago, was purchased last January by two young women who know New Orleans' food. Ashley Flick, who recently graduated from John Curtis High School, is only 20 years old, but she comes from a family of restaurateurs. "I've been working in a restaurant since I could peel shrimp," she says. Her sister, 24-year-old Shelly McNeil, just graduated from Louisiana State University with a degree in business management. With some help from their parents, the sisters bought Sammy's and have spruced up the decor and slowly expanded the menu.

My friend who first told me about Sammy's now lives just down the street from the restaurant. When he bought a place in Bucktown, I wonder if easy access to Sammy's roast po-boys was a deciding factor?

click to enlarge Sisters Shelly McNeil and Ashley Flick serve up some of - the city's better po-boys and more at Sammy's. - CHERYL GERBER
  • Cheryl Gerber
  • Sisters Shelly McNeil and Ashley Flick serve up some of the city's better po-boys and more at Sammy's.
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