To have great po-boys, you need someone who can make the bread just right. You need someone with a good line on affordable, high-quality seafood and someone with no fear about perhaps applying too much roast beef gravy. The other essential ingredient is the customer with a local palate, the customer who will disregard national ad campaigns and coupons and bypass a rogue's gallery of fast food brands to get to a respectable po-boy shop.
Humble though they may sound, po-boys don’t happen on their own – po-boys happen because of a specific food culture.
These days, though, you may wonder if that po-boy culture is changing. After all, how far can a po-boy go and still be considered a po-boy? That question has been on my mind lately as restaurants, food trucks and festival vendors test the outer limits of po-boy plausibility.
Now, to one view, the po-boy is comfort food. Just listen to the way people order them at the register. They rattle off specs for how theirs should be dressed, what filling combinations they want, whether this is toasted or that is melted. It sounds like the same practiced way that people order their coffee or their martini just so. That's not the sort of craving looking for deviation, and that’s why there will always be a place for the traditional read on po-boys.
Seen another way, though, the po-boy can be a canvas for creativity, a sturdy loaf sliced down the middle and pried open for whatever theme or ideas will fit inside, drippage notwithstanding.
To this view, the ultimate expression right now is Killer Poboys, which takes up the motto “international inspired, chef crafted New Orleans style sandwiches.” They’re made on banh mi bread, those crusty, airy, pistolette-sized loaves, and they expand the notion of po-boy fillings to include rum-glazed pork belly, chicken confit with a coffee barbecue sauce, a vegan version with sweet potato, greens and black eyed peas and a morning edition with smoked salmon and remoulade.
A generation ago, all of this might have raise eyebrows among po-boy purists. But today, it’s the contrary. Killer Poboys has caught on big, and from its start in a little tavern kitchen at the Erin Rose bar it’s added a second shop on Dauphine Street in the French Quarter.
This notion of new school po-boys is expanding, and yet the sky is not falling. That’s because, as close as we keep the comfort food value of po-boys, there’s such a strong case for po-boys as a low-cost, low-risk avenue to explore different flavors.
Further proof will be on exuberant display this weekend at the Oak Street Po-Boy Festival, where dozens of high-concept, left field examples of where a po-boy can go are served alongside straight up classics that show where they came from.
In this setting, people compare the options head to head, eating sample-sized sandwiches from New Orleans’ great po-boy purveyors and contenders of all stripes. Judges name winners in a whole menu worth of categories, and the public picks their own people’s choice winner too. Just make sure you keep some napkins handy, this exercise in democracy can get deliciously messy.
Sunday, Nov. 22, 2015
10 a.m.-6 p.m.
Oak Street at South Carrollton Ave.
811 Conti St. (at the Erin Rose Bar), 504-252-6745
219 Dauphine St., 504-462-2731