Mother’s Restaurant, New Orleans
Ask 10 people what the signature food of New Orleans is, and you might very well get 10 different answers. It’s a testament to just how much of a food paradise the Crescent City is that it can do so many different things so well that they can legitimately be considered a signature item. But while things like oysters, crawfish, seafood and fried chicken can be found across the country, the po’ boy always has been and always will be pure Louisiana.
What is a po’ boy? Well, the definition has actually changed quite a bit from when the sandwich was invented in 1928. Back then, the po’ boy consisted of gravy and roast beef on French bread, and it picked up its name because it was served at the back doors of restaurants to “poor boys”, who were mostly striking workers. As time went on, po’ boys eventually diversified, adding other meats and seafood to the options and coming “fully dressed”, which includes lettuce or cabbage, pickles and condiments, depending on where you’re getting it from. Usually, those condiments include things like mayonnaise, Creole mustard and regular mustard, while tomatoes might also get thrown in at different places.
The one constant since 1928 no matter where the po’ boy has come from is the bread. Only French bread is used for a true po’ boy, and you’re not going to see white bread, wheat bread or Italian available as options. French bread, along with being a nod to the city’s roots, provide a crisp exterior and a soft middle, making for a perfect vehicle for the meat, vegetables and condiments.
One of the most famous po’ boy places in the Big Easy is also one of the oldest: Mother’s Restaurant, located in the Central Business District, a neighborhood away from the French Quarter. Mother’s has been serving po’ boys since its doors opened in 1938, and since that time, it’s made two significant contributions to New Orleans’ famous sandwich. The first is its baked ham, which it proudly calls the world’s best. Maybe that’s a New Orleans thing to boast about your product, but again, it’s not bragging if you can back it up. The Landry family’s recipe results in a caramelized glaze on its ham, giving the meat a sweet and tender taste. Glazed ham is always a good thing, and Mother’s produces a crisp glaze that almost looks like the ham is burnt. That’s always a good sign.
The second contribution came later, when a customer named Ferdi entered the store one day and decided he didn’t want to have just one meat on his po’ boy. Not even Mother’s is sure whether Ferdi asked for ham to be added to a roast beef po’ boy or for roast beef to be added to a ham po’ boy, but either way, Ferdi got ham and roast beef on his po’ boy, dressed and complete with debris, which is a fancy name for the roast beef that falls into the gravy during baking, resulting in a roast beef and gravy mix. He loved his sandwich, and word quickly got out to other customers, who requested the combination for themselves.
The Ferdi Special was born, and years later, it’s Mother’s most famous sandwich. Later, Ferdi’s nephew Ralph continued his family legacy by asking for his uncle’s sandwich with cheese, creating the Ralph. Given my love of cheese, the Ralph would seem to be right up my alley, but there’s no way that I could make my first visit to Mother’s without trying the original Ferdi, the way it was meant to be tried. That meant a fully dressed Ferdi, and at Mother’s, that means cabbage, pickle, mayonnaise and both kinds of mustard, along with the meat and debris.
This sandwich is heaven on bread. First, there’s the ham, which comes out baked to perfection. The meat is juicy and is simply wonderful on its own. I can see what they’re talking about by calling it the world’s best. because this ham is as good as you’d expect to find at a Christmas feast. The roast beef is also wonderful, but where this sandwich really shines is the debris. Really, the debris is reminiscent of Chicago’s signature sandwich, the Italian beef sandwich. Just like in the Windy City, the debris-covered po’ boy soaks up the juice from the roast beef, which magnifies the flavor in every bite.
The result is a dripping mess that is simply fantastic. The liquid gravy makes the roast beef even more juicy, and the fact that French bread is used allows the sandwich to actually hold together despite the large amount of liquid. The vegetables and condiments are a perfect addition, and I can see why so many New Orleans residents requested this combination so many years ago. Sandwiches simply don’t get much better than this.
Of course, Amy isn’t a beef eater, so she decided to go a different direction, choosing one of the Pelican State’s many seafood delicacies, the catfish. Neither one of us has ever really met a seafood meal we didn’t enjoy, and the chance to get fresh catfish in a place like this was irresistible to her. The seafood po’ boys come with much of the same condiments as the meat po’ boys, with the differences being no debris and no mustards.
Neither of those mattered at all to Amy, who enjoyed every bit of her po’ boy. The fish is crispy on the outside and cooked to perfection on the inside, and cabbage and mayo, plus the possibility of tartar sauce, are natural additions to seafood. Just like with the Ferdi, the dressed po’ boy is the only way to go with this one. I had a small taste of it and found it to be incredible, hot, fresh and falling apart in your mouth the way a quality piece of fish should. If not for my own sandwich, I would really recommend this sandwich as the one to get. Throw in a mountain of fries, and you have a fantastic experience that’s unique to New Orleans. She loved every bit of it and was thrilled that we had found such an amazing establishment.
But really, unless you aren’t a fan of eating beef or pork, there can only be one choice, and that’s the Ferdi. There’s just something about both the ham and the debris that make it a thing of perfection here. Just like the beignets and the fried chicken, no trip to New Orleans is complete without experiencing the greatness that is a po’ boy, and it doesn’t get much better than this. I don’t know what inspired Ferdi to combine two meats into one sandwich all those years ago, but there’s no doubt that the Crescent City is a better place and a more delicious place because of his foresight.
Time to go: Early in the evening is best to avoid the wait. Mother’s line can get quite long at the traditional dinner times, and if you’re planning to come then, your introduction to Mother’s will be waiting in line with a menu outside the establishment. It’s open from 7 a.m. until 10 p.m.
Wait during my visit: Substantial. We were outside for a while, because the restaurant only lets in a few customers at a time. As an older building, it just doesn’t have the space to accommodate large amounts of traffic inside. The line will congregate outside the steps by Mother’s, and the restaurant has one in and one out. Do not try to go out the same way you came in, you will only screw up the system.
Location: Mother’s is located at 401 Poydras Street in the Central Business District of New Orleans, where Poydras meets Tchoupitoulas. It’s within walking distance of most of the French Quarter.
Cost: Not too bad, as most po’ boys will be about $12 for a large sandwich. One thing to keep in mind here is that Mother’s employees are not allowed to accept tips. You won’t have an option to tip anything at the register, and don’t bother leaving anything on the table, because they will not be taken. Even though you will get a server to bring water and condiments once you select your table, they can’t take your tip no matter how you give it.
Parking: There is a lot next door where Mother’s validates parking, but really, I wouldn’t try it. New Orleans is not a car-friendly city, and Poydras Street is one of the busiest streets in the Big Easy. When you can get from the Quarter to somewhere on foot in 10 minutes and you’re in a good area, that’s the best plan unless you have a good reason not to walk. You can also ride the streetcar to Poydras and walk north, but take it from me: you do not ever want to rely on the inconsistent New Orleans Riverfront Streetcar.
Seating arrangement: Tables and chairs are standard, but the restaurant itself is small, and in the interest of moving customers through the establishment faster, they will ask strangers to share a table if they deem it necessary. Be warned.
Specialty items: Po’ boys, Ferdi Special