“What are you writing?” my guest asked, gesturing to my smartphone with the straw she pulled out of a key lime pie milkshake ($4.50) that had so little citrus flavor, I thought she had ordered vanilla.

“I’m making notes,” I replied, giving another glance around the dining room at Po’ Boys & Pickles. “Just trying to remember the way the room looks.”

“Read them to me,” she urged, setting down the milkshake to tear pieces from an excellent coconut macaroon ($1). I was happy we had ordered a second.

As I whispered what I had jotted down, I paraphrased my staccato reminders into makeshift sentences.

“The interior has seen better days. Near the windows that overlook Forest Avenue, years of harsh daylight have sun-bleached the yellow paint on the walls. On one corner is a blotchy, four-foot patch-job where the drywall has been repaired, but never repainted. The vintage ads and old snapshots of New Orleans on the wall have all faded to a bluish monochrome. It feels like yesterday in here.”

The Peacemaker with Cajun fries at Po’ Boys & Pickles in Portland. Staff photo by Shawn Patrick Ouellette

She looked around, nodded her assent and gave me a thumbs-up. Later that night, she called me: “Stop whatever you’re doing and go look up the 2010 review of Po’ Boys & Pickles.”

When I did, I caught my breath. It was like staring into a telescope and seeing then-Maine Sunday Telegram critic N.L. English waving at me across a decade:

“The linoleum isn’t worn,” began her four-star review, “the framed photographs of New Orleans aren’t faded, and there’s no trombone or trumpet player getting folks dancing…”

While the years haven’t been kind to the architecture and décor of Po’ Boys & Pickles, the mostly New Orleans-themed sandwich shop has never stopped attracting loyal crowds of hungry customers – even after original owner Peter Zinn sold the business in 2015. Indeed, a second Portland location looks likely to open this spring.

“We’ve always had a strong following: people showing up in construction gear, eating next to bankers in their suits; high school students who come in because…milkshakes; and when they finished the Park Danforth (an assisted living facility about a block away), reuben sandwich sales went through the roof,” current owner Chris Bettera said.

Partly, devotees return because dishes appear to have changed very little since 2009. Zinn’s original recipes still form the backbone of the menu, both the great ones – Louisiana-style slow-cooked roast beef “debris” on a crusty Leidenheimer Bakery roll ($7.50/half) – and the less-inspiring ones, like gruel-thin gumbo ($7) that practically gasps for an extra teaspoon of thickening filé, and a muffaletta po’ boy ($7.50/half) spread with an anemic portion of olive salad: the one component that should lend enough acidic zing to counterbalance a deli’s worth of sliced meats and cheeses.

Deep-fried items are something of a speciality at Po’ Boys & Pickles. By and large, these dishes are strong. The Peacemaker po’ boy ($9.50/half), an avalanche of breaded Harbor Fish shrimp and oysters, lettuce, tomato and red-pepper mayonnaise, is one of the best dishes on the menu and is full of surprises, from its abundant size to the raw pearl I discovered when I bit into one of the cornmeal-and-flour-dredged oysters.

Customers study the menu at Po’ Boys & Pickles in Portland. Staff photo by Shawn Patrick Ouellette

The falafel salad ($8.50) is also one of the menu’s high points, thanks to a vinaigrette that pulsates with heat from Creole mustard and crisp-fried pieces of falafel from Papou’s Kitchen in Westbrook.

And although the skin-on French fries are distributor-sourced, they are fried well and stand up better to a dusting of the Woodland Foods Cajun Blackening blend ($3.50) than to a ladleful of bland house-made turkey-beef gravy ($4.50).

The fryer is also the locus of a few misadventures, including otherwise gorgeous, nutmeg-scented, cakey donut holes that are fried until nearly black ($3.50). Dipping them in the ganache-like chocolate fudge sauce is the only way to make them palatable. Worse are the boudin balls ($6.50), which, in a change from their original Po’ Boys formulation, are now made in-house from pre-cooked pork butt and liver, jalapenos and rice. After a few minutes in the fryer basket, they give up all their moisture, leaving the insides desiccated and smelling powerfully of offal.

If the boudin balls left me questioning how the Po’ Boys kitchen deals with ground meat, a relatively new menu item, the atomic patty melt ($9.50) did nothing to reassure me. Here, eight ounces of beef – enough to make two sandwiches at many restaurants – are hand-formed into a patty. Of sorts. When I pulled open the two thick slices of grilled sourdough to peer inside, I found my burger broken into five lobes, each of which was burned around its irregular border, then spackled into shape with a terrifically smoky bacon jam.

Po’ Boys & Pickles. A second location is scheduled to open in spring.

On my second visit, I made a point to take advantage of the open kitchen and watch the back-of-house team make my meal. I couldn’t have anticipated what I would see (and hear). First was a staffer who licked her fingers not just when she handed me a takeout menu, but also before she wrapped each sandwich in butcher’s paper. But the biggest shocker came when the kitchen spontaneously burst into song, loud enough for the entire dining room to hear.

“I didn’t know you knew that song,” remarked one of the cooks to a woman working the counter. “Where did you learn it?”

“From Frank’s mom,” she replied. “She taught it to me the other night when she was [insert description of a lewd and biologically impossible activity here]!”

They all burst out in guffaws and high-fives. I laughed, as did the people at a neighboring table. A couple sitting nearby with their milkshake-drinking pre-teen looked significantly less amused. I watched them bustle out the door in a hurry, pausing to shoot the kitchen the stink-eye.

My guest and I turned back to our roasted vegetable salad ($8.50), spearing crumbles of goat cheese and just-tender cauliflower, Brussels sprouts and butternut squash on our forks, and polished off what was left of our smoky red beans and rice ($7), an extra-thick take on a Louisiana classic, full of andouille sliced into thick coins and long-grain white rice. But we couldn’t stop laughing at what we had just heard.

“You have to write that down,” she urged.

I did, but this time, I politely refused to read it back to her.

Andrew Ross has written about food and dining in New York and the United Kingdom. He and his work have been featured on Martha Stewart Living Radio and in The New York Times. He is the recipient of two 2018 Critic’s Awards from the Maine Press Association. Contact him at:

andrewross.maine @gmail.com

Twitter: AndrewRossME


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