Finding honest-to-God Louisiana cooking in this town is as difficult as tracking down a proper deep-dish pizza, an outstanding haggis, or a really good goulash. The cuisine of New Orleans is as multilayered, evocative, and elusive as the Big Easy itself, and doesn't adapt well to our cool climate and fear of powdered sugar and pig lard. How can peppers, andouille, and crawfish be expected to mingle and ferment to the proper degree of culinary excess in prim, foggy Northern California? There are a few pockets of bayou verisimilitude here and there — the red beans and rice at the Monte Carlo, the pulled-pork po'boy at Little Skillet — but an establishment imbued with the rollicking spirit and refined yet soulful cookery of southern Louisiana is a rara avis indeed once you venture past Sabine Lake. Queen's Louisiana Po-Boy Cafe comes pretty danged close in several important aspects, though.
Opened last month in a former mechanics' shop along an otherwise undistinguished stretch of San Bruno Avenue, Queen's delivers an immediate and palpable New Orleans vibe as soon as you walk in the door. Like any self-respecting Uptown soul shack, it's trim, tidy, and immaculate. Masks, beads, Rue Dauphine street signs, and Jazz Fest posters from years past decorate the robin's-egg beadboard walls. Lanterns in French Quarter wrought iron dangle over tables equipped with jars of powdered filé and bottles of Crystal hot sauce; big windows let in plenty of sunshine, and there's comfy sofa seating back toward the flatscreen TV. Boisterous zydeco booms from the stereo speakers, good smells waft from the open kitchen, and the warm, sweet-natured counter ladies create an infectious Mardi Gras spirit.
As its name indicates, the specialty of the house is the po'boy, the abundantly stuffed sandwich that is to New Orleans what the hoagie is to Philadelphia or the hero is to South Jersey. Also known as a médiatrice, or peacemaker (errant husbands would proffer them to their long-suffering wives in the antebellum days), the po'boy outclasses its regional rivals with the magnitude and inventiveness of its fillings. At Louisiana joints like Parasols in the Irish Channel, the Parkway Bakery in Mid-City, and R&O's in Metairie, half-foot and foot-long loaves of French bread are packed with oysters, Gulf shrimp, catfish, crawfish, smoked sausage, pork chops, soft-shell crabs, fried green tomatoes — you name it.
Queen's doesn't offer the two dozen options you'll find at many a po'boy joint back home, but most of the classic combos are on hand. All begin with the ubiquitous soft, absorbent French roll ("imported from New Orleans, LA," per the menu) in six-inch or 12-inch lengths and "dressed," in Crescent City parlance, with shredded lettuce, sliced pickles and tomatoes, and a healthy schmear of mayo. The fried shrimp ($8/$12) overflows with tiny Gulf prawns wrapped in a light, crunchy batter. Fried crawfish tails ($9/$13) are sweeter and more delicate in flavor, while the fried oyster ($9/$13.50) combines the intensely briny flavor of big ectoplasmic bivalves with a crisp coating and a succulent texture. Slender filets of catfish ($8/$12.50) emerge from the fryer perfectly moist and tender in their cornmeal crust, a nice contrast to the soft bread, fresh veggies, and creamy mayo. Best of all, though, is the smoked sausage po'boy ($6.50/$9.50), in which a hefty link of juicy, peppery andouille and its crackly skin is butterflied, sandwiched, dressed, and happily consumed. (Note that if you order more than one po'boy, the sameness of the dressing becomes a bit monotonous, especially if, as in our case, the advertised cheese, remoulade, and tartar sauce don't materialize atop the sausage, crawfish, and oysters.)
The po'boys are tasty and substantial, but they're eclipsed by the house gumbo ($5/cup, $9/bowl). Too often gumbo is watery or tepid or lacking the stimulating qualities that make it the emblematic Creole dish, but Queen's starts with an especially rich, dark roux; spices it up with the holy trinity of pepper, onion, and celery; and deepens the flavors with fresh scallions, plump shrimp, fragments of crabmeat, and rounds of peppery sausage. The result is a spicy, smoky, invigorating brew that's even better with a little pulverized sassafras stirred in. Another house specialty, the Cajun Burger ($5, $6.50 double), isn't as impressive; despite the rumored presence of bacon, jalapeños, and barbecue sauce, it's nothing more than a perfectly adequate cheeseburger.
Several side dishes complement the po'boys. The hush puppies ($2.50 for three, $4.50 for six) are terrific: crunchy outside, moist and steamy inside, with specks of onion, the robust flavor of cornmeal, and soft, copacetic honey butter for dipping. The coleslaw ($2.75 small, $4.50 large) is pretty perfunctory, but the Creole potato salad ($2.50/$5) is creamy, slightly sweet, and jazzed with mustard and spice. Potatoes are also available in the form of Zapp's Louisiana potato chips ($1.25 per bag) and two kinds of fries: garlic fries ($3.75/$5.25) with two much powdered Parmesan and not enough garlic, and sweet potato fries ($2.50/$3.50) dusted with sugar and cinnamon — hot, skinny, and tasty in a churro-y sort of way.
For dessert, there's pecan pie ($3) with a heavy, unyielding crust and a nut-laden filling that stopped halfway to the top of the tin, and beignets ($4.50 for three) that will disappoint anyone who has been to Café du Monde along the Mississippi: Flat, tough, and doughy, they're a far cry from the fluffy, slightly chewy powdered-sugar bombs of yore. Better to opt for the wonderfully buttery pecan pralines crafted at Pralines by Yvonne just up Third Street and sold at the cash register.
Beverages include two New Orleans natives: Abita pure-cane root beer and Louisiana Community Coffee served with or without chicory, straight or au lait. Service is strictly counter, and the paper napkins dissolve halfway through your first peacemaker.
It's kind of like those Big Easy dives where the air is sweet and thick, music drifts in the window, and the food is delectable. Queen's might not be all of that, but it's a good place to start.