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Big Easy Does It: Poor House Bistro owner Jay Meduri can feed your New Orleans obsession.

Poor House Riches

For a New Orleans fix, drive yourself into the Poor House Bistro

By Stett Holbrook

About 10 years ago, when I was attending graduate school in Massachusetts, a friend and I set off to New Orleans to escape New England's late winter malaise. It was March and we were happy to leave the dirty snow and the cold leaden skies behind for a taste of good times and good weather in the Crescent City.

As we drove south, the landscape slowly came to life, brown giving way to newly emerged green. By the time we crossed the 6 1/2-mile bridge over Lake Ponchartrain and entered New Orleans, we were in a different world. It was warm and sunny. Spanish moss hung from the trees like garland. Dogwood trees were in full bloom. And everything, it seemed, revolved around eating, drinking and listening to live music, often all at once.

To me, the best New Orleans food is all about excess. It's rich, sometimes spicy and very satisfying. It's served in large portions in a casual environment that calls out for cold beer. Making the most of my first and only trip to New Orleans, I ate a wide swath through the city. I picked my way through plates of boiled crawfish ("bugs," in local parlance). I queued up for po' boys and muffaletta sandwiches at corner stores. I ate my weight in gumbo and jambalaya. I had chicory-laced coffee and beignets at Café du Monde. After a week of food and drink, the drive back to Massachusetts was a long one that left me hungry to return.

I've yet to go back to New Orleans, but I'm forever seeking out restaurants that will transport me there. So when San Jose's Poor House Bistro opened about six weeks ago, I was jazzed. The South Bay has little to offer fans of New Orleans fare. PHB bills itself as a "New Orleans joint" with a low-priced menu that includes po' boys, barbecued shrimp, gumbo, red beans and rice, burgers and Louisiana's Abita Ale on tap.

The restaurant is set incongruously in a beautiful old house amid an industrial neighborhood between the HP Pavilion and Diridon train station. Inside, the hardwood floors and black and white photographs of New Orleans give the place a homey charm. You order from the counter and take a seat in what was once a bedroom or living room. Out front, the patio and porch feel like a Southern-fried beer garden with old-timey signs on the fence and jazz playing on the speakers. The building itself was once the home of restaurant owner Jay Meduri. His grandparents bought the nearly 100-year-old house in the 1940s from San Jose State and trucked it from near the campus to the present site.

On my first visit, I went straight for the restaurant's namesake item—the po' boy. The results were mixed. Po' boys in New Orleans are overstuffed, shirt-staining, mayonnaise-oozing sandwiches loaded with wonderful things like fried oysters, catfish or deli meats. The Poor House's fried shrimp po' boy ($7.95 for half, $14.95 for a whole) fell short because it was too dry. The sandwich was dressed with shredded cabbage, pickles and mayo, but it was the breaded shrimp and bread that stood out. The bread, however, is great. The restaurant gets its French rolls from Louisiana's Leidenheimer Baking Co., a bakery known for its po' boy rolls. Messier and better was the Poor House po' boy ($7.95 for half, $14.95 for a whole). Made with roast beef, ham, gravy and "beef drippin's," the sandwich had the saucy, over-the-top quality that a po' boy needs.

The muffaletta sandwich ($7.95 for half, $14.95 for a whole) had all the right components. The Italian-inspired New Orleans deli sandwich is loaded with ham, salami, mortadella and provolone cheese on a light but sturdy roll. What makes the sandwich a success is the garlic and olive oil- spiked olive relish. The crunchy olive spread comes from the French Quarter's famed Central Grocery, a well-known muffaletta shop. And by the way, half a sandwich is enough to feed two.

The New Orleans combo ($8.95) includes a sampler of gumbo, red beans and rice and jambalaya. While it didn't appear to contain any of the requisite shellfish, the file-seasoned gumbo of chicken and okra was hearty and good. So was the plump, andouille sausage-spiked red beans and rice. But the jambalaya was flat-out awful. Mushy, overcooked rice with chicken and sausage bits in an insipid tomato sauce bore no resemblance to what should be a lively dish of shellfish and meat.

Better was the blackened chicken and tasso (cured ham) pasta ($8.95) tossed with a rich cream sauce over fusilli pasta.

In spite of a few rough spots, Poor House Bistro succeeds because of the good-times vibe that pervades it. Before catching a show or a tractor pull at the HP Pavilion, this is the place for an inexpensive bite to eat and a few beers. In time, I'm hoping the kitchen will refine the menu further. I still want to make a trip back to New Orleans but for now the Poor House Bistro gives me the food fix I crave.

Poor House Bistro
Address: 91 S. Autumn St., San Jose.
Phone: 408.292.5837.
Hours: 11am-9pm Mon-Sat. Open Sundays for major HP Pavilion events.
Price range: $5.95-$15.95.

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From the July 13-19, 2005 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2005 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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