For the first customers of Poboyz Cajun Creole Kitchen, the restaurant was a welcome coincidence. They had planned to go to New Orleans, but Hurricane Ida derailed their trip. They stumbled upon Poboyz while strolling downtown, and it happened to be the restaurant’s first day open. “They were so pleased because they were so looking forward to eating New Orleans food,” says Randall Willhite, the owner of the Cajun-Creole food cart Poboyz. “It was kind of a meant-to-be thing.”
Poboyz, which started as a cart, is a deep dive into the Louisiana culinary world: Visitors drink hurricanes while they wait for po’boys and jambalaya, snacking on powdered-sugar-dusted beignets on their way out the door. Willhite built his cart on a foundation of lessons from New Orleans culinary legends, including the late Leah Chase. But at the new restaurant, Willhite wants to expand the restaurant’s offerings into broader territory, adding dishes like Cajun alfredo, lobster mac and cheese, and a po’boy adorned with banh mi garnishes.
Willhite, a former Oregon Ducks running back, has familial roots in Louisiana, but Cajun cooking wasn’t a huge part of his upbringing; his mother grew up in Kansas, and barbecue played a much more prominent role in his culinary history. It wasn’t until he started going to New Orleans regularly, to watch his brother play football, that he began to develop a real love for Cajun Creole cooking; when he started to tell the chefs serving him — icons like Leah Chase (the “Queen of Creole Cuisine”) and David Volion (apprentice to Paul Prudhomme) — that he was interested in owning his own restaurant, they jumped in to help. “They gave me tips and guidance and recipes,” he says. “I was on a mission, to learn everything I could. They seemed passionate about it, and when I told them I wanted to open a restaurant, they were so excited.”
Those early conversations became the foundation of Poboyz, which opened as a food cart in 2019. Very quickly, Willhite developed a reputation for the shop’s namesake sandwich, stuffed with fillings like fat fried gulf shrimp and plump oysters. The sandwiches all came on Leidenheimer bread shipped in specifically for the cart, which Willhite loves as a fluffy-yet-sturdy foundation for his sandwiches. The menu grew, with an assortment of dishes like jambalaya, shrimp and grits, and red beans and rice. Quickly, Poboyz outgrew its cart, and in another stroke of serendipity, a restaurant space opened up right down the street.
For Willhite, the extra square footage means he can double the size of his menu: He’s adding muffalettas, the-olive-salad-and-cured-meat sandwich with Sicilian-Louisianan roots, as well as peacemaker sandwiches with oysters and candied bacon and po’boys filled with roast beef. He’s planning a larger selection of pastas like alfredo and lobster bacon mac and cheese, and snacks like “sea balls,” or fritters filled with crab, lobster, and shrimp.
Willhite has a lot of plans for the future — live music in the restaurant, a late night takeout window, brunch — but he’s particularly excited about the restaurant’s events and one-offs: annual meals of gumbo z‘herbes, Friday “rich man” menus with hypebeast fare, and a free Thanksgiving meal with gumbo and Cajun-fried turkey legs. “We’re called poboyz, and that’s how poboyz were invented: People were giving back to the workers who were on strike. So we want to honor that,” he says. “Our slogan is, ‘poor boy, rich taste.’”
Poboyz will celebrate its grand opening with a party on Saturday, Sept. 25, starting at 11 a.m. The restaurant is located at 132 SW 3rd Avenue, in the former Bijou Cafe space.
Correction: This story has been corrected to show that the address is 132 SW 3rd, not 438 SW 3rd. 438 SW 3rd is the location of the cart.
• Poboyz [Official]
• Poboyz debuts new restaurant in downtown Portland’s former Bijou space [Oregonian]