At Poor Boys, a New Orleans-themed eatery in the Fan, the brassy squeal of trumpets and rat-tat-tat of drums bounce off the bunker-style concrete walls. The narrow dining room, even at a quarter of its capacity, is about as noisy as a crowded streetcar. Porthole “windows” built into the wall frame postcard views of an imaginary New Orleans cityscape. Strings of rainbow lights undulate on the ceiling like some Mardi Gras-inspired light show. A local band readies for the witching hour in the “Voodoo Room,” a boozy hideaway in back of the restaurant.
At times, too, the Cajun and Creole dishes on the Poor Boys menu are almost as lively and colorful as the Big Easy itself. A tidy row of crawfish beignets ($11.95) in the shape of tiny cannonballs struck me with their dynamite personality. Each one puffed open with just the slightest prod of the fork, revealing an unexpectedly spongy core embedded with crawfish and peppers and tickling spices. Giving each fried ball a winning kick was a swipe of creamy, sour, spicy remoulade.
The Cajun fried chicken ($14.95), a jazzy trio of drum, wing and breast, had me ooh-ing and ahh-ing over its melodic crunch, its chorus of juices chiming in with every bite, and its peppery bass notes. If only this dish hadn’t missed that final beat, with two pieces of chicken noticeably blander and less well-seasoned than the third, it could’ve been a bona-fide hit.
I’d also gladly make a return trip for one of the restaurant’s eponymous po’ boy sandwiches. The fried shrimp po’ boy ($10.95) came on a joyfully chewy loaf of Leidenheimer bread, split down the seam and dressed up with lettuce, tomatoes and a brush of mayo. Fried shrimp, thickly dusted with bay seasoning, ran up and down the full length of the sandwich, like a sort of low-country boil over bread.
Sadly, some of the menu’s other offerings are more muted and lackluster than I would’ve hoped. Shrimp cloaked in a jagged armor of deep-fried panko, a cavalry of “devils on horseback” ($11.95) — though satisfying — weren’t nearly as thrilling as their name had suggested. Strips of jalapeño pepper slipped into each saddle of fried shrimp like a little fiery love note added the faintest whiff of rebellion, but not enough to command my attention. Standing by was a one-hit wonder of sweet chili sauce that added some levity but virtually no substance to this dish.
The BBQ shrimp pasta ($14.95) didn’t excite me, either. The lacy fettucine noodles had a definite spring in their twirl, and the shrimp were so firm and meaty they could’ve bested a langoustine in a bodybuilding contest. But the soupy reduction of beer and butter meant to tie this dish together — which somehow brought to mind French onion soup rather than pasta sauce — was otherwise perplexing.
Ironically, the heat-filled Cajun jambalaya ($14.95) left me feeling even colder. Infusing the wet grains of rice, their consistency somewhere between paella and congee, were loose threads of chicken, crinkled hooks of baby shrimp and thin flaps of smoked sausage. Naturally, I expected this constellation of ingredients to contribute strong and vibrant flavors to the jambalaya. Yet a cloud cover of peppery spice — instead of helping to serve “as an accent” in this dish, as famous Louisiana chef Paul Prudhomme suggested — all but prevented any of these other flavors from coming into focus. The result: a dish of disproportionately sharp heat and dull flavor.
Poor Boys sets out to document a wide range of Cajun-Creole dishes. Unfortunately, sometimes the dishes come across like more of a tourist brochure of New Orleans cuisine than a transportive food experience. But in a few instances, as with the beignets and po’ boy sandwiches, the restaurant manages to give life and expression to its cooking in ways I wish it could with all these dishes.
Justin Lo writes freelance reviews for the Richmond Times-Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter or Instagram @justinsjlo.