Po boy report from the Big Apple

A Lunchtime Institution Set to Overstuff Its Last Po’ Boy

in today’s New York Times

I’ll post the whole article in the “extended entry” section below, since the Times has the annoying habit of expiring articles after two measly weeks…


A Lunchtime Institution Set to Overstuff Its Last Po’ Boy
By R. W. APPLE Jr.

Published in the New York Times on April 27, 2005

New Orleans — SAM UGLESICH grew up among mariners and fishermen off the coast of Croatia on rocky Dugi Otok, whose name means “long island,” surrounded by the azure waters of the Adriatic. Twice he set out for the United States. The first time, he jumped ship in New York, but was caught and sent home. The second time, he made his break in New Orleans, then as now a more permissive city, and got away with it.

Naturally enough, he opened a seafood restaurant in his adopted city, specializing in the local shrimp, soft-shell crabs, lake trout and oysters. The year was 1924, the place South Rampart Street; Louis Armstrong had played gigs a few doors away.

Three years later, he moved to a modest frame cottage on Baronne Street. There, as the neighborhood around them crumbled, he and his son, Anthony, along with Anthony’s wife, Gail, gradually built a reputation of legendary proportions. Grander establishments like Galatoire’s, Commander’s Palace and Antoine’s loomed larger in the guidebooks, but the exacting standards of little Uglesich’s (pronounced YOU-gull-sitch’s) – everything bracingly fresh from lake and gulf and bayou, nothing frozen or imported, and absolutely no shortcuts – generated greater buzz.

Without benefit of advertising, word of Uglesich’s big, tan, glistening oysters, its sweet, plump crawfish balls, its searing shrimp Uggie and its overstuffed yet feather-light po’ boys spread across the city and then across the country. It mattered not to most people that it took no credit cards and served neither dessert nor coffee.

Five days a week, 11 months a year, lines have formed outside the ramshackle building, which displays a sign from the long-defunct Jax Brewery in one window. On Good Friday this year, customers began arriving at 9 in the morning, even though the restaurant does not open for lunch, the only meal it serves, until 10:30. Soon there were more than 200 people in line, and the sun was setting as the last of the day’s 400-odd clients were being served.

All this with just 10 tables inside and 6 on the sidewalk outside.

Soon Uglesich’s will close forever, at least in its present form. Anthony and Gail Uglesich are exhausted, worn out by years of rising at 4:30 and working flat-out all day. Balding, bearlike, Mr. Uglesich, 66, told me he would shut the doors in mid-May, but he has renewed his liquor license, just in case he finds retirement miserable.

“I may go nuts,” he said at the end of a particularly brutal day. “I doubt it, but I won’t know until I try it. If I do climb the walls, I might try packaging our sauces for retail sale, or maybe do some catering – people are always offering me thousands of dollars to cook for their dinner parties – or reopen here for four days a week, with limited hours and a very limited menu, just appetizers. No more of this, though.”

Mrs. Uglesich, 64, a petite woman whose regular customers call her Miss Gail, put the situation bluntly. “Our bodies are telling us we can’t take it anymore,” she said in the soft, liquid accent that marks her as a New Orleans native. “Anthony has missed only two days’ work since we were married, and that was 41 years ago.”

Neither of the Uglesiches’ two children – Donna, 40, a businesswoman, and John, 35, author of “Uglesich’s Restaurant Cookbook” (Pelican Publishing) – has shown any desire to take over the business. “It’s too hard,” Mrs. Uglesich said.

With many New Orleans restaurants, including some of the most famous ones, relying these days on frozen crawfish tails and frozen soft-shell crabs and on shrimp and crabmeat imported from Thailand or China, Uglesich’s stands out more than ever.

“Look,” Mr. Uglesich said, peering through wire-rimmed glasses, “90 percent of the shrimp eaten in this country is imported. Local crawfish costs me $7 a pound, compared with $2.50 imported. People in restaurants here know they can get away with things. But I’d pay $10 for Louisiana crawfish, if that’s what it takes. Otherwise, what’s going to happen to our local fishermen? When we’re gone, I don’t know.”

Two houses across the street from Uglesich’s have been spruced up recently, but otherwise the neighborhood remains pretty insalubrious. A big parking lot for the trucks of Brown’s Dairy occupies one corner, weed-filled vacant lots several others; the neighborhood seems miles, not just a few blocks, from both the imposing, pillared mansions of the Garden District and the busy shops and restaurants of the Central Business District.

A few weeks ago Mr. Uglesich was mugged late at night, but he still showed up for work the next day, battered and bruised, to stand in his usual position behind the counter, ready to take orders and to dispense seafood wisdom along with the wines that sat on a shelf behind him. He usually stocks 15 or 20 labels from France (Trimbach, for example), Australia (Penfolds) and California (Ravenswood). None sell as well as beer or Mrs. Uglesich’s horseradish-, lime- and chili-spiked bloody marys.

The setup is utilitarian, to put it kindly: concrete floor, sturdy Thonet-style chairs, Formica-topped tables. Mrs. Uglesich makes the sauces and soups at home. Mr. Uglesich brings them to the restaurant in his car. The kitchen gear consists of a single eight-burner range, a fryer, two refrigerators and several sinks. There are only seven employees in the whole place.

“I was never tempted to get big,” Mr. Uglesich said. “I can’t find enough good produce as things stand now.”

He is a notoriously picky buyer. Many days, he rejects what his suppliers offer him, like soft-shells he considers too small. He claims to be able to tell as soon as a sack hits the ground whether the oysters inside are good enough. He checks every delivery of fish and shellfish with a practiced eye.

Mr. Uglesich buys catfish only from Joey and Jeannie Fonseca in Des Allemands, a tiny place in the swamps southwest of the city; bread only from the 109-year-old Leidenheimer Baking Company; and oysters only from the P & J Oyster Company, which was founded by two fellow Croats, John Popich and Joseph Jurisich.

Uglesich’s focuses on relatively few main ingredients. It serves no meat at all, except for the roast beef po’ boy, and only two kinds of fish: lake trout and catfish. K-Paul’s made redfish famous, Lilette serves delicious drum, and the local pompano has been famous for a century, but Mr. Uglesich sticks to his longtime favorites.

Shrimp rules on Uglesich’s tables. In addition to shrimp Uggie, you can order a shrimp po’ boy (crisp fried shrimp in a long, toasted bread roll), shrimp and grits (shrimp in a delectably creamy sauce ladled over fried triangles of grits), grilled shrimp and onions, shrimp and country sausage with a creole mustard sauce, shrimp in bacon with a sweet potato souffl

6 Comments so far

  1. Tyler (unregistered) on April 27th, 2005 @ 10:53 am

    I saw this back in April in the NOLA section of Gridskipper. I wondered if Jonno ever got to Uglesich’s and ate some Shrimp Uggie as requested

    http://www.gridskipper.com/travel/new-orleans/food/last-call-at-uglesichs-039323.php

    Did you like it, Richard? (I ate there only once. It was good–though not memorable in the ways described in the NYT article …)


  2. jonno (unregistered) on April 27th, 2005 @ 12:01 pm

    alas, i never did get to Uglesich’s, for the same reason why i’ve never eaten at Mother’s: i hate standing on line when i’m hungry. but hey, we still have Casamento’s!


  3. jonno (unregistered) on April 27th, 2005 @ 12:04 pm

    (oh, and ps – you can always feed a NYT link into this page to get a non-expiring archive link for blog posts … ):

    http://nytimes.blogspace.com/genlink


  4. Tyler (unregistered) on April 27th, 2005 @ 1:02 pm

    I’m am so with you about waiting in line at places like Mother’s. I about passed out the first time I ate there–though the food turned out to be good, and the wait staff were all terrific given the crush and rush of people.

    I’ve wanted to eat at Casamento’s–but given that they put oysters in the veggie soup and hand you a traif lagniappe as you leave … it’s been difficult to convince my not-so-goyishe boyfriend to go.

    Happy Pesach, everyone! … (is there such a thing as Oysters Po’Mazah Brei?)


  5. richard (unregistered) on April 27th, 2005 @ 1:30 pm

    Given the pollution in the Gulf of Mexico and the trend toward global warming, I predict a new species of oysters will soon evolve, sporting both scales and fins–which’ll technically make them kosher. Just a couple more seasons, and we’ll be able to have a foursome at Casamento’s.

    You know what I mean.


  6. YatPundit (unregistered) on April 28th, 2005 @ 11:43 am

    i also agree about Mother’s. When you can walk a few blocks over and find a number of good po-boy places where you don’t have long-ass lines, it’s just not worth it.



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