Editor's note: This post marks the debut of our new New Orleans bureau chief, Blake Killian. When he's not out and about eating around New Orleans, he's blogging about what he's cooking up in his kitchen at Blake Makes. We're excited to welcome Blake aboard and eager to read all about what's going on in the Big Easy. He'll be along periodically to give us all the lowdown on what's going down in one of America's truly great food cities. Adam
Unfortunately the idea of a po' boy festival never materialized in food-crazy New Orleans until a couple of weeks ago, so my wife and I were thrilled to attend the first annual Po' Boy Preservation Festival on November 18. The fest to "save our sandwich" was held on Oak Street, a funky lane in the Carrollton neighborhood near Tulane. When I say the street is funky, what I'm really saying is that it's small, narrow and just a little dirty (but isn't everything in New Orleans).
Because this was the festival's first year and I hadn't seen that much publicity for it, I assumed the Po' Boy Festival was going to be an uncrowded, low-key affair with maybe a few hundred people wandering in and out throughout the day. The lack of some of the city's best-known po' boy joints (Domilise's: Where were you and your amazing oyster po' boy?) from the festival guide also led me to believe turn-out might be low. I should have known, however, that where there are po' boys, any po' boys, hungry bellies are never far away. Add live music, free admission and 60 degree weather, and it's a wonder the fire marshal wasn't called in to clear us all out.
More than 10,000 people were there that day. We stayed for about three hours, all of which were filled with us baby-stepping our way down the street in shoulder-to-shoulder crowds. Long lines, some of which literally stretched blocks, formed at food tents and slithered their way through the crowds—never straight and never in the same direction.
This was exciting—people clamoring for po' boys filled with everything from traditional roast beef to the more unique and seasonally appropriate turkey and dressing po' boy (complete with giblet gravy and cranberry sauce).
But this was New Orleans, and like most of us here, I keep a running list of the city's best po' boys in my head. Each time I taste a new and better 'boy, I have to rerank my list.
I was on the hunt for something amazing, maybe life-changing. I wanted a new experience, something my brain and tummy couldn't even conceive of. I wanted to find it with the Thanksgiving Po' Boy from Parkway, but the novelty wore off quickly, and the butcher paper that's typically used to wrap the sandwich did little to contain the mess. My hands, face, and pants were soon covered in Thanksgivingness, and after three bites I tossed the turkey and moved on.
Bridget got a roast beef from Parkway that was delicious. I don't usually get roast beef po' boys because I rarely find one that's juicy with just the right amount of gravy. Parkway's was perfect, however, so I convinced her to share.
Next stop was the Ye Olde College Inn booth for a fried green tomato with shrimp remoulade. It was good, but the fried oyster, bacon, and havarti was spectacular. The oysters were breaded in corn meal and flash-fried so they were still wonderfully juicy on the inside. The salty bacon and stout havarti (it tasted like a sharp English cheddar) paired perfectly with the crisp mollusks.
I thought this was the one, the girl I was going to marry, but something else happened to catch my eye.
I noticed the color first. Pink. Pink. Dabs of pink were everywhere in the crowd. They were all holding po' boys filled with color, bright pink being the predominate hue, but there were also specks of green, yellow, and orange.
These lucky individuals weren't even looking where they were going, but just letting the current of people take them where it may. I knew I had to find out what it was they were eating, and discover how it tasted for myself.
Banh Mi Sao Mai had a food tent like everyone else, but the Vietnamese po' boys they were dishing out were entirely unique. For example, the bread wasn't the crusty French baguette that everyone else used. Their loaves fit perfectly in your hand and were soft but sound enough to accommodate all the deliciousness they stuffed inside.
They sliced the bread lengthwise and dabbed a sweet and spicy chile sauce on either side of the open face. Next, in went some sliced spicy pork, cucumber spears, shredded carrots, and cilantro. I thought that did it, but just before she handed it to me, the sandwich artist tossed in three bright-pink meatballs and crushed them into the po' boy.
The Vietnamese po' boy was different, and Bridget and I both agreed it was our favorite. It was wonderful how the fiery meat and chile sauce contrasted with the cool cucumbers, cilantro, and sweet carrots. Many po' boy traditionalists might say that such a combo would constitute some sort of po' boy blasphemy, but I love that someone dared to serve something unique.
Ultimately, the festival judges didn't agree with my top pick, as Best of Show went to Ye Olde College Inn's Fried Green Tomato and Shrimp Remoulade. We still had a great time sampling the city's best 'boys and we will definitely be there next year.
Here's hoping that some of the city's standout po' boy vendors who were noticeably absent this year will be there, too.