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Thu May 12, 2011
A Portable Po-Boy Legacy
By Ian McNulty
New Orleans, La. – One of the stereotypes we endure as New Orlenanians is our dogged resistance to change. Somehow, this is supposed to be a bad thing. But when you have such rich traditions and cultural touchstones that are so particular to a place, well, why would anyone be in big rush to change them?
Even still, for all our supposed intransience, New Orleanians have had to cope with an extraordinary amount of change as the city reorders itself post-Katrina. On the food front, one small but telling example is Koz's, a po-boy shop that's proving how the flavors and personalities of a neighborhood joint can persist even after it switches neighborhoods.
Koz's is the reincarnation of a Gentilly institutional called the Bakery, which was in business on Franklin Avenue from the early 1960s. The place had been the roost for Gary Gruenig ever since the day in 1965 when, at age 12, he was given an after-school job there sweeping up. Not long after, he picked up the nickname that would end up above the doors of his own business today. A regular at the Bakery compared young Gary's wild antics on his bicycle to, quote, "a kamikaze pilot without the plane." Kamikaze became koz.
The name stuck, and so did Koz, who worked at the Bakery alongside founder Jerry Seely for the next 40 years. He didn't just work there though. He came to personify the place, and even raised his family in the apartment above the shop. The levee failures after Katrina wrecked the Bakery, and Seely moved to the country. But soon after the disaster, when a regular from the Bakery offered the lease on an undamaged restaurant space in Harahan, Koz snapped it up. He and his family opened their own restaurant, Koz's, just three months after Katrina. A few years later, Gary's son Max, aka, Little Koz, opened a second Koz's in Lakeview, taking over the old Charlie's Deli on Harrison Avenue.
These are different neighborhoods, but for those who remember the Bakery there's a feeling of relocated veracity. For instance, Koz's is the place to get that oddball Gentilly classic called the Chamber of Horror. The name is an old reference to the basketball gym at the University of New Orleans, a cramped space back in the day where fans made a fearsome racket to intimidate the home team's opponent. Re-imagined as a sandwich, the Chamber of Horror is a Frankenstein of a po-boy with roast beef, ham and turkey, plus Swiss and yellow American cheeses, plus raw white onion, plus gobs of mayo, plus Creole mustard and, just for good measure, Italian salad dressing. It tastes like a deli case has been crammed into bread, and students of excess will find plenty to chew over.
And amid the normal po-boy options there's another Bakery original, the BBQ ham po-boy. This is one more entry in the long tradition of New Orleans kitchen misnomers. The ham is not actually barbecued, nor is it covered in barbecue sauce. Rather, the sandwich is filled with bits cut off a baked ham, stewed in a salty, tangy jus and ladled wetly onto the bread. The BBQ ham po-boy is the sterling item that spelled out the Bakery's name across knowing palates. That taste is the same, though now this sandwich says Koz's. -- Learn more at wwno.org.
6215 Wilson Ave., Harahan, 504-737-3933
515 Harrison Ave., New Orleans, 504-484-0841