You are no match for a french fry po’boy. Take it from Sara Roahen, author of Gumbo Tales: Finding My Place at the New Orleans Table. She encountered the gravy-smothered concoction soon after she moved to the Big Easy. “It knocked me out,” she recalls. “I literally passed out on the floor.”
New Yorkers are probably more familiar with po’boys stuffed with fried seafood, but the french-fry-and-gravy version is actually the original, though it was first made with something more like hash browns. The story goes that the sandwich and its name were invented in 1929 at the now-closed Martin Brothers in New Orleans, where the hefty subs were given away to striking streetcar workers as a show of solidarity.
Now, having lived in NOLA for several years, Roahen says she can take on a french fry po’boy and soldier on with her day. “Many times, I find myself appalled,” she says, “but not appalled enough to stop eating.” I experienced that state recently, staring down New York’s only french-fry-and-gravy po’boy, served at Honeychiles’, a new Cajun and Southern restaurant inside Williamsburg hardcore/punk bar the Charleston.
“Die, die, die,” goes the music. “Crunch, crunch, crunch,” goes the romaine. This is the kind of sensory mash-up common at Honeychiles’. Show your ID at the door, where the unsmiling bouncer is at odds with the cheerful, red-and-white sign printed with the restaurant’s name, complete with illustration of a fedora-wearing wolf mascot.
Honeychiles’ is the creation of Jesse Crawford, Josh Martin, and Jameson Proctor, all of whom grew up in the South and happen to be in bands. Crawford and Proctor do the cooking and daily management: Crawford comes from Jacksonville, Florida, plays in the Ex Humans, and previously worked at D’or Ahn; Proctor hails from Atlanta, plays in the Wright, and was previously chef de cuisine and manager of operations for all ‘wichcrafts. Proctor says that Honeychiles’ will live permanently in the Charleston, but that the trio will soon look to expand, possibly to a food truck.
The restaurant’s ordering counter is to the right of the entrance, slightly removed from the bar proper, with its handful of booths and basement live music venue. The Charleston is decades old, pleasantly worn-in. The only apparent nod to modernity is the large, flat-screen television that’s often set to a Mets game. Most customers dress in black and have an average of four visible tattoos. The tables are sticky, the floor rubber, the walls scuffed red leather. The lighting barely exists.
The menu is short, including two kinds of jambalaya, two po’boys, a Caesar salad, desserts, and a handful of “fixins”: snacks like boiled peanuts and hush puppies. Having gleefully eaten my way through the whole list, I can tell you that the food is all far, far better than you’d expect to get at a comfy, down-at-the-heels bar, and some of it easily surpasses the cooking at New York’s many new upscale Southern restaurants. Honeychiles’ has the added advantage of being cheap. It’s downright hard to spend more than $15 per person.
Snag drinks at the bar while you wait for your order to be ready—the Charleston has a handful of good beers on tap, including bracingly bitter Lagunitas IPA and two brews from Louisiana’s Abita.
The two po’boys offered are a seafood special that changes periodically and the O.G.—which is what Honeychiles’ has nicknamed the potato behemoth. Handfuls of thick fries are crammed into heavily mayo-ed crusty white bread, and the whole thing is doused in delicious beef gravy floating with bits of roast beef. It’s like a French dip, but with fries. Or like poutine, but on bread. There are several regional over-the-top specialties that it’s similar to, but the O.G. raises the stakes on all of them. This sandwich is so staggeringly enormous, so very tasty, so deeply caloric that it’s impossible to finish unless you’ve been doing manual labor, are extremely drunk, or have resigned yourself to collapsing on the floor.
For a less intense experience, try the seafood special, which on a recent week was stuffed with fried shrimp, the cornmeal-battered shellfish crisp and peppery. Both po’boys are only marred by the bread, which comes from the nearby Napoli Bakery: nicely crusty, but too dense and tough-crumbed. They’re currently working with another baker, though, to try to replicate New Orleans French bread.
Aside from the sandwiches, the menu is anchored by two renditions of jambalaya—one traditional, with andouille sausage and chicken thighs, and one vegetarian, with smoked tofu. The meatless one is a nice gesture, but it’s not very compelling. In the meaty version, all of the flavors stand out in sharp relief: The Cajun holy trinity of onions, celery, and bell peppers gives the stew a full-flavored backbone; a heavy dose of cayenne lends a lingering heat; and the andouille sausage adds smoke.
The “fixins” are all worthy snacks, especially for $3 each, though some might find the poblano cornbread too sweet. The hush puppies are particularly good: crunchy and shot through with scallions and craters of molten smoked cheddar. Shake on the Trappey’s Louisiana Hot Sauce. Boiled peanuts go creamy in the heat, cooked in an intensely flavorful spice sludge that includes allspice, cayenne, ginger, nutmeg, paprika, and hot sauce.
For dessert, you could get a very fine bread pudding topped with melted pecan praline, but better to try the mini beignets, which are fried to order and come in a brown paper bag. Popped in your mouth, the airy doughnuts collapse eggily. And no matter how carefully you eat them, you’ll end up covered in a light snow of powdered sugar, as if you’re a regular at the Café du Monde.