Each November, vendors at the Oak Street Po-Boy Festival explore new possiblities for this city's favorite sandwich, working with offbeat ingredients and combinations to offer one-day wonders on French bread. A few festival hits materialize on menus here and there, but mostly they push the boundaries and then recede into our memories for the rest of the year.
But the example set there took root in Michael Brewer's imagination and eventually inspired this journeyman of the local restaurant scene to start The Sammich inside the Mid-City music hall Chickie Wah Wah with a po-boy menu like no other. In his small, walk-up kitchen, "dressed" still usually means tomatoes and shredded iceberg lettuce, but the overall package is often more like an entree composed on a Leidenheimer loaf instead of a plate.
Brewer's fried lobster po-boy is the best example. Big claw and tail chunks are fried just long enough to crisp the tempura batter before they're coated with a velvety, outrageously flavorful blend of butter, peanut sauce, Sriracha and mango. Grilled chicken gets new life in another marquee po-boy, thanks to a hybrid dressing that merges kimchee and coleslaw. Spicy, vinegary-sharp, but also a little sweet, the stuff oozes and drips all around the char-marked chicken to unite Korean and American barbecue flavors.
The roster also includes a fried oyster po-boy with blackening seasoning and Crystal hot sauce beurre blanc, a Cuban sandwich imbued with falling-apart, slow- and low-cooked pork shoulder and a pair of shrimp po-boys. One features rather straightforward barbecue shrimp with the addition of avocado mayo, but the other stretches the concept of a fried shrimp po-boy to include pickled okra, which I can't endorse.
Brewer's small plates make good bar snacks, and they're as distinctive as the po-boys. Fries cooked in duck fat have twice the crunch of regular fries, and Brussels sprouts are roasted until the outside leaves crackle like chips. There's a chunky smoked tuna dip and the atypical headcheese is like a loosely packed Cajun version of rillettes — spreadable, chunky and much different from the normal, gelatin-packed loaf.
Chickie Wah Wah is more music venue than neighborhood bar, which in some ways amplifies the complications of serving good food in alternative settings. When there's a big act on stage, a crowd in the room and a cover at the door, the place feels very far from a restaurant.
The Sammich shows some significant upsides to the arrangement, however. At lunch, the po-boy window makes an easy stop along a stretch of Canal Street lacking eateries. And in the evening, the prospect of having Tommy Malone, Jon Cleary or Tom McDermott on stage (all of them are on the June calendar) and a lobster po-boy on the bar top sounds like a pretty good dinner date to me.