Last year a milestone in Houston cuisine passed with little hullaballoo: the 50th anniversary of the Houston-style po’ boy.
Back in 1962, Jalal Antone, the Louisiana-born, Port Arthur-raised son of Syrian immigrants, opened Antone’s Import Company on Taft Street (a building now occupied by The Pass & Provisions). Antone intended for his shop to cater to both his fellow Syrians and Lebanese immigrants and the general public, but a brother-in-law told him that native Houstonians were not yet ready for falafel, baba ghanoush and hummus. He’d have to cater to them some other way.
Namely, through that New Orleans invention—the po’ boy sandwich—albeit one with a Houston spin.
Or so Robb Walsh was told five years ago, when he spoke to A.J. Droubi, another of Houston’s one-time Lebanese / Syrian po’ boy kings.
Here’s Walsh in the Houston Press:
What made it a poor boy — did it have mortadella on it? I wondered. "No, it was just ham, salami and provolone on French bread, Droubi said. "It was the chowchow that made it a poor boy." Chowchow, a traditional Southern relish made of cabbage, green tomatoes and hot peppers, was something new to Lebanese immigrants. Antone sold olives and Mediterranean groceries at his store and maybe that's what attracted curious shoppers, but it was the poor boy that really caught on.
And so Antone advised arriving Middle Easterners that Houston wasn't ready for Middle Eastern restaurants, but if you called your place a poor boy shop and put some chowchow on your sandwiches, you could also offer falafels or kebabs or anything else you wanted.
And so voila: a native Houston sandwich, made by Lebanese and Syrians, building on a New Orleans foundation and then localized via generous slatherings of orange-red chow-chow, an addictive concoction of cabbage, vinegar, sugar, dehydrated onions, green sweet peppers, salt, spices, paprika, and turmeric. (Note: NOLA po’ boys can be either hot or cold: true Houston po’ boys are always served cold, though some deranged souls microwave them.)
The Houston po’ boy was wildly popular through the ‘70s and ‘80s, a lunch staple alongside barbecue and tacos. Antone’s storefronts multiplied and spawned imitators; Droubi’s for one, and then Kojak’s on South Shepherd. (And now on West 19th in Lazybrook.)
Italian delis also served po’ boys, and while theirs were just as delicious, they were harder to distinguish from cold NOLA po’ boys and subs from the east coast. I was raised on Butera’s grocery po’ boys. They had shredded lettuce on them, and no chow-chow. Mandola’s Deli on Leeland is perhaps the sole survivor of the Houston-style Italian po’ boy movement.
It's sad but true: Houston-style Syrian/Lebanese po’ boys appear to be dying out. Back in the early ‘90s, the Antone’s family split the empire into two camps: the "Import Company" faction that kept things close to home and more traditional and the "Famous Po' Boys" faction that franchised and tried to take the name far and wide.
There was a time you could get Antone’s po’ boys in Nashville gas stations. They were dry and terrible, much like the ones that you still can find in supermarkets today. The problem is the chow-chow and mayo – these sandwiches require a lot of both, and sandwiches can only absorb so much moisture for so long before they turn into gooey messes.
One wonders how much damage has been done to the Antone’s brand name by all those years of cardboard supermarket sandwiches. It’s sad. I’ve talked to people who once loved the Antone’s po’ boy who swore off them forever after eating those desiccated facsimiles from Kroger or Randall’s.
At any rate, the Famous faction has come under the management of Legacy Restaurants in the last year. Legacy—along with Clumsy Butcher, the people behind Anvil—also runs Ninfa’s on Navigation and the groups are said to have restored the Famous faction's po’ boys to their former glory—at least the ones sold in storefronts.
But the question remains: can this sandwich be saved? That it is fast-vanishing from our city's culture is indisputable.
The Houston po’ boy’s decline was brought about by factors both international and domestic. In the 1970s, a fresh batch of immigrants began arriving in town, bringing with them their own spin on the po’ boy. Like the New Orleanians and the Lebanese and these Syrians, the Vietnamese had a partially French background. Their sandwiches were spicier, sported fresher produce (if less meat and no cheese or chow-chow), and infinitely crispier French bread. The banh mi—once known widely as “the Vietnamese po’ boy”—was also exponentially cheaper and went down so well alongside an iced, condensed milk-sweetened coffee.
And after the Vietnamese po’ boy shops there came a deluge of national chains: Subway, Quizno’s, Jimmy John’s, Jersey Mike’s, Which Wich and the newly-energized Schlotzky’s, that old sourdough stand-by.
And so seven area Antone’s have closed in recent years. The Droubi’s empire has also contracted, though they have a thriving Middle Eastern grocery on Hillcroft and a few non-po-boy dispensing Mediterranean diners around town.
Today I can think of fewer than ten offering these venerable native sandwiches: the four remaining Antone’s, Droubi's on Hillcroft, Kojak’s, Anthony’s (a Westheimer knock-off of an Antone’s that once was there), and yes, also Anthonie's, an FM 1960 copycat. I’ve also heard good things about the Supreme Sandwiches chain but can’t vouch for it personally.
Get ‘em while they’re cold.