Finding a New Orleans–style sandwich in Toronto is now just a matter of getting to Islington Station.
It’s not exactly Mardi Gras inside the five-month-old Billy Jack’s Po’ Boys. It’s a bare-bones space (with a flat screen tuned to CP24) that seats about 40. A few strings of parade throw beads dangle from the bar taps and the occasional Dixieland ditty plays over the speaker, though not as often as Johnny Cash. But it’s the one place that adds colour to the grey concrete landscape dotted with apartment buildings, wide roads, and mid-rise office buildings at Bloor and Islington.
Owner and chef Bill Jack is from Etobicoke, but it’s clear he’s done his homework on Cajun cooking. “Am I from New Orleans? No. Do I have an understanding of the cuisine? Yes,” says the bespectacled chef, while cooking sweet-potato fries that he seasons with a touch of cinnamon. “I have a lot of clients from that area who say it reminds them of the food back home, which is ultimately the best compliment.”
The lunch menu features southern dishes like chicken-fried steak, sweet red beans with rice, and catfish tacos, but the emphasis is on nine po’ boy sandwiches ($10, with fries), which include Cajun standbys—fried green tomatoes, shrimp, fried oysters—as well as more unconventional fillings. The Acadian poutine po’ boy, for instance, is stuffed with fries, gruyère, asiago, mozzarella, and a red-eye gravy. Jack hasn’t found a local supplier that makes proper po’ boy bread—a white baguette that’s softer in the middle—so he’s opted for Ace Bakery ciabattas. Dinnertime sees the addition of dishes like pulled pork with slaw and hush puppies ($16), as well as crab cakes ($10). The jambalaya, a staple Cajun rice stew, has a slow burn that builds from the combination of cayenne, paprika, black pepper, Andouille sausage, and Tabasco.
Jack, who’s 50, spent the bulk of his 30-year career working at corporate chains, but it wasn’t until two years ago that he thought about branching out. He was drawn to southern cooking’s family-style meals, which reminded him of his mom’s dinner parties in the ’60s, albeit with more cayenne. And so Jack hit the recipe books and experimented a lot, learning that the key to a good gumbo is a roux, a thickening agent of flour and fat, that’s cooked to a much darker colour than in French or Italian cuisine. He also studied up on how to prepare blackened catfish, which appears in his signature sandwich, so it stays moist. He seasons the fillet with a blend of Cajun seasoning and heats clarified butter in a pan until it’s on the verge of burning, then sears the fish until it’s crisp on the outside. “If the pan’s not hot enough, the seasoning will turn into awful clumps,” he says.
Still, Jack knows he has much to learn as a first-time restaurant owner. “I hope if people like it they’ll tell me, and if not they’ll tell me, too” he says. “I don’t assume that it’s a slam dunk or that five years from now I’ll have five restaurants. I want to build a reputation for a good meal, friendly people, and being a place where you want to come back.”
Billy Jack’s Po’ Boys, 3369 Bloor St. W., 647-352-3369, poboys.ca.