On Sunday, the Oak Street Po-Boy Festival puts on a one-day, seven-block showcase testing the outer limits of the city's famous sandwich, with restaurants offering new and classic versions. In the back of a French Quarter pub, Killer Poboys is conducting advanced experiments in the same field day in and day out.
Some genre standards turn up here, so the menu includes sausage patties, fat shrimp and tender beef in gravy that soaks many napkins. But some practices are discarded. I've never spotted shredded iceberg, for instance, and tomatoes have appeared only in early summer when the local Creole variety was too beautiful to ignore.
Cam Boudreaux and April Bellow started Killer Poboys last spring in the galley kitchen of the Erin Rose bar. Both worked in fine dining before tackling the po-boy, and they aren't the first to go this route. Ben Wicks' creations at Mahony's Po-Boy Shop and the lunch menu at Boucherie are two prominent examples. Killer Po-boys stands out by grounding itself in po-boy tenets and imaginatively building on them.
The sausage is made from lamb seasoned with a shelf's worth of Moroccan spices, griddled into crisp patties and dressed with sumac-scented carrots and tzatziki sauce turned green by heavy use of herbs. Sauteed shrimp are surrounded by pickled vegetables, in the manner of banh mi, and all the po-boys are assembled on light, crackling-crisp banh mi bread. The beef, which is grass-fed product from Two Run Farm, is laced with horseradish aioli and crammed so generously into its loaf that the bread, wetted by its juices, conforms to it like a wrapper. There always is a vegan po-boy with red bean puree, garlicky chimichurri and Hollygrove vegetables.
The menu is short, though the specials are usually exotic — shrimp, alligator and pork rolled together in meatballs under smoky tomato sauce and Manchego one week, pork belly with Brussels sprouts and pumpkin seed pesto the next.
Irish whiskey makes it into the grilled cheese but does not make it taste like much more than plain old grilled cheese. The "dark and stormy pork," braised with rum, was the only po-boy I didn't love, though someone with more of a taste for sweet barbecue might appreciate it.
Killer Poboys gets all types. The nuisances of making destination-worthy food in a bar apply: patrons must be at least 21 to enter, seating is scant and you must tolerate cigarette smoke. But Killer Po-boys has developed a loyal following, including staff from nearby restaurants visiting in uniform post-shift and businesswomen in heels picking up lunch orders and maybe succumbing to a midday cider while they wait.
It all seems proof that if you build a better po-boy, the world — or at least dedicated New Orleans foodies — will beat a path to your door.
Cam Boudreaux will appear on the Nov. 20 broadcast of the Food Network's cooking competition show Chopped.