By TOM SCHERBERGER
Times Staff Writer
Michael Brandt spent most of his adult life working in fine-dining restaurants for Abe de la Houssaye, best known for introducing New York City to the wonders of Cajun cuisine at restaurants like Texarkana and La Louisiane. Having grown up in the Mid-City section of New Orleans, Brandt never forgot the simple pleasure of tearing into a po' boy, the iconic sandwich found all over his native city, usually in the most humble of surroundings.
They were inexpensive and, like so much of the food New Orleans is famous for, made to order with fresh ingredients and integrity handed down from one generation to the next.
So when he decided to exit the fast lane of NYC fine dining — "It can be very involving,'' he says in what sounds like an understatement — Brandt knew what he wanted to do.
Last year, he and business partner Anthony Jack rented a narrow cubbyhole along West Bay Drive and started making their version of the po' boys of Brandt's youth. They call it Gulf Coast Po' Boys, and it has been drawing a small but steady crowd of New Orleans natives longing for a taste of home.
Why Largo? The rent was reasonable, Brandt says, they could start the business without a bank loan and the beach was nearby. Besides, Central Park was right down the street. "I thought that was a sign,'' he says with a laugh.
Now they are living the dream, serving up po' boys from an open kitchen and stuffing them with fried oysters, catfish, shrimp and chicken, Cajun andouille and dirty roast beef (made dirty from the luscious debris dredged from the pan drippings). All the sandwiches are $7.95, except for the shrimp and roast beef ($8.95). All are made to order with ingredients bought fresh each morning.
"This has always been a concept I wanted to do,'' says Brandt, 49. The goal is as simple as the sandwiches: restaurant quality food at reasonable prices. He figures po' boys — named by a French Market sandwichmaker after striking New Orleans railroad workers in the 1920s — are perfect for these challenging times. "You can't eat a po' boy and walk away hungry,'' Brandt says.
They buy their bread fresh every day from Giovanni's Bakery in Largo, and while it's not the traditional French bread common to po' boys in New Orleans, it is a reasonable alternative. Besides, biting into one of their perfectly breaded and fried shrimp or oyster sandwiches puts one in a forgiving mood. Brandt has developed a different batter for each fried item, and it shows. (He says it took him 20 years to persuade de la Houssaye to part with his fried chicken batter recipe.) The roast beef is particularly memorable: large, tender chunks of meat reminiscent of the oxtails Jack's mom used to make (Jack, 49, grew up in the Caribbean, which has influenced New Orleans cuisine for centuries).
The chicken, catfish, shrimp or oysters can be ordered sans bread in a basket with Cajun fries and coleslaw (the slaw made with vinaigrette instead of mayo). The menu also includes a delicious version of red beans and rice, simmered in chicken stock with ham hocks and Tasso (a spicy, smoky pork that is a favorite of Cajun chefs). It's a refined version of this comforting classic, topped with a dollop of chunky tomato salsa. There are mixed green salads, too, and potato salad. If you have room, try the bread pudding topped with whiskey sauce ($4.25).
It's a tiny space, just a counter at the window with four stools and four small tables out front. And while they are living their dream, part of it has proven elusive: Long days mean the slow pace they were seeking will have to wait, along with the beach.
Tom Scherberger can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8312. He dines unannounced, and the Times pays expenses.