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Where Y'Eat: Modern Po-Boys Going Mainstream

Ian McNulty
The spicy tuna po-boy from Seither's Seafood looks like it took a trip through the sushi bar.

Created for one-day awards competitions at the Po-Boy Festival, some original riffs on the city’s famous sandwich have become menu fixtures year-round.

On Sunday, the Oak Street Po-Boy Festival will return, and with it comes what’s grown into an annual experiment, one testing the outer limits of the city’s most famous sandwich. Restaurants great and small contribute their own edible exhibitions, with new and sometimes daring ideas for what can happen between French bread served to the festival crowds.

This year, for instance, I’m excited to try a smoked doner kebab po-boy, which the restaurant Boucherie is making based on Turkish-style spit roasted meats. My hit list also includes a buffalo po-boy from Metairie’s Harbor Bar & Grill, a duck BLT po-boy from Mahony’s, and the Portuguese man o’ war po-boy, which the deli Wayfare is concocting from chorizo and salt cod cakes.

Usually, festival po-boy creations like these push the boundaries and then recede back into our memories for the rest of the year. But recently, more of them have been turning up at restaurants around town long after the festival tents have been folded up. Po-boys that might have raised eyebrows a few years ago have become menu fixtures and customer favorites, propelled into the mainstream thanks to the Po-Boy Festival.

That explains the spicy tuna po-boy at Seither’s Seafood, a casual, easy-to-miss restaurant tucked away in Harahan. This is a sandwich that looks like it’s been dragged through the sushi bar, with eel sauce and spicy mayo zigzagging over nearly-raw fish and an artful splay of avocado. There’s also a seafood au gratin po-boy, which is more like a hand-held casserole — the prep starts by making a roux — and there’s even a taco po-boy on the drawing board.

Restaurant owner and po-boy creator Jason Seither did not start his restaurant with dishes like this. For years, Seither’s served a much more traditional menu. But that started changing after his first year as a vendor at the Po-Boy Festival. The quest for one of the event’s coveted po-boy awards fired up his imagination, and his new festival ideas quickly migrated to his regular menu. He’s not alone.

At the very first Po-Boy Festival in 2007, the restaurant Ye Olde College Inn won the best of show award for a shrimp remoulade and fried green tomato po-boy. The very night of that win, chef Johnny Blancher began brainstorming ways to top it the following year. He came up with a dessert version: the fried bread pudding po-boy, which also won top honors. Both sandwiches were quickly added to Ye Olde College Inn’s menu.

Mark Falgoust, chef of the downtown restaurant Grand Isle, has a similar experience with his shrimp Caminada po-boy. This one has shrimp sautéed with citrus-spiked compound butter and topped with a veritable salad of cilantro, basil, mint, cabbage and other vegetables. It earned best of show honors in 2009 and was written onto the menu within days.  Four years later, at any given table inside Grand Isle, at least one person is usually giving one a spin.

One measure of a successful festival is attendance, and the crowds who flock for the Po-Boy Festival are certainly impressive. But look around town at the new ideas for po-boys taking root, and you’ll see what’s starting to look like a festival legacy.

Oak Street Po-Boy Festival

Where: Oak Street between S. Carrollton and Leake avenues

When: Sunday, Nov. 24, 10 a.m. to 7 p.m.

Ian covers food culture and dining in New Orleans through his weekly commentary series Where Y’Eat.

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