There’s something improbable about the existence of Poor House Bistro in San Jose, as if the fates were playing a game of chance with unlikely twists and turns that made this stellar New Orleans-themed restaurant land in the center of Little Italy.
Take the building itself, built as a sorority house in the 19th century. It has been moved several times, losing half its size and becoming a family residence somewhere along the line, before opening on South Autumn Street as the first bistro location. The most recent move in 2022 dropped the house right next to Henry’s Hi-Life on St. John Street.
“It was my grandparents’ home in the 1940s,” Poor House Bistro owner Jay Meduri told San José Spotlight. “I lived here myself for seven years before deciding to turn it into a restaurant.”
Meduri spent almost two decades as a baggage handler and blues musician before falling in love with the music, culture and food of New Orleans during his stops there. Switching professions to the culinary arts, he worked in kitchens for five years before opening Poor House Bistro in 2005. Designing the menu around the Big Easy was an obvious choice.
“There’s not too many places that I could say have a better food selection than New Orleans,” Meduri said. “There is a diversity of flavor in the seafood and meats and all the different spices. Everybody makes totally different gumbos, jambalayas or even po’boy sandwiches.”
For example, the BBQ shrimp, one of the most popular dishes, is not quite what you’d expect. There is no thick, sweet, tomato-based sauce, and the shrimp never touch a grill. Instead, the shrimp are pan-fried in Italian dressing, Worcestershire sauce, a mix of spices and lemon juice.
Meduri named the bistro after his signature po’boy sandwich, The Poor House— a great place to start exploring the menu. A New Orleans French roll is layered with shredded cabbage, tomatoes, pickles, mayo and creole mustard, sliced ham and sliced roast beef.
The sandwich is topped with a generous mound of either slow-roasted chuck roll served au jus, Cajun pulled pork or shredded chicken and served as a massive, messy open-faced sandwich — exactly as Meduri likes it.
“In New Orleans, they say you judge a po’boy by how many napkins you need to use,” he said. “With ours, you are going to need at least 10.”
Shortly after opening, fate rolled the dice again when Hurricane Katrina hit Meduri’s beloved city, and the bistro owner found himself at the center of fundraising efforts for the recovery.
“I knew some musicians that were displaced to San Francisco, and I had them start playing here,” he said. “We built up our efforts over a year and we were about the only New Orleans restaurant in the area doing anything. It really put a spotlight on us.”
While Meduri’s work helped raise awareness of the restaurant, the hurricane’s destruction meant he could no longer depend on New Orleans as a source of ingredients. As he started sourcing bread locally, he also needed to track down pans to bake the enormous buns for his muffaletta sandwiches, which are nine inches in diameter and three inches high. The sandwich itself is made with salami, ham, mortadella and provolone, with an olive giardiniera relish and olive oil spread on both sides of the bread.
Live music has been part of Poor House Bistro from the beginning, and musician AC Myles has been a regular performer since the restaurant opened. He’s also a dedicated customer who favors the crawfish pasta — tail meat sauteed in a creole cream and served over fusilli.
“To me, the atmosphere is very homey, and you can tell a family runs the joint,” Myles told San José Spotlight. “There’s things like the beignets and the catfish and the muffaletta that you just can’t get anywhere else in this region.”
The move to Little Italy gave Meduri an excuse to add some of his family’s Italian recipes to the menu, in hopes of fitting in better with the neighborhood. As befits a business and a life that has had so many random changes of direction, he is taking things one day at a time and looking forward to the future.
“I’m working harder than I did when I opened this business 18 years ago,” he told San José Spotlight. “But this is such a cool little subsection of the city and I think things are going to be fabulous when everything gets all dialed in. ”
Contact Robert Eliason at [email protected].
Editor’s Note: The Biz Beat is a series highlighting local small businesses and restaurants in Silicon Valley. Know a business you’d like to see featured? Let us know at [email protected].