Oak Street Po-boy Fest brings crowd with appetite to N.O.

Child’s play it’s not. Most of the folks who attend the annual gorging gala known as the Oak Street Po-Boy Festival mean business, serious business.

With empty stomachs, they arrive early, scope out the grounds and with maps in hand, check off the po-boys they plan to fill up on throughout the day. When they discover one they must have — say, the fried chicken waffle boy topped with maple syrup-infused cole slaw — they get in line even if it means waiting a half hour before the food is ready.

That was the thinking of Stephanie LeRay and Rocky Hennigan, two of the tens of thousands of famished festgoers who flocked to Oak Street on Sunday for the Po-Boy Fest. Donned in their Saints black-and-gold, they started the line for Palate Catering’s waffle concoction and breathed a sigh of relief when they saw how quickly it grew.

“We really strategize,” LeRay said. “We like to go for the unique ones. You can go anywhere for a shrimp po-boy. But a chicken and waffle po-boy is different. We really wanted to try it.”

When a Palate worker handed them their orders, which included a side of crawfish mac-and-cheese, they wasted no time digging in.

“Mmmm,” Hennigan said, attracting a crowd of curious onlookers.

“It’s very good,” LeRay added.

Stretching eight blocks from South Carrollton Avenue to Eagle Street, the Po-Boy Fest, in just six years, has easily become one of the New Orleans metro area’s premier culinary events with upwards of 50,000 people attending each year. So crowded has the fest become that organizers this year implemented several changes — including relocating the music stages and adding a dining area — to improve the flow on Oak Street.

“One of the biggest limitations is the street,” said festival producer and Maple Leaf Bar owner Hank Staples, who donned a po-boy topped cap. Still, he said, he can’t imagine it being anywhere else as has been debated over the years. “One of the reasons I got involved was to keep it on Oak Street, and I’m kind of stuck with it.”

Staples joined other festival royalty for an opening ceremony that included the blessing of the po-boy by the Rev. Herbert Kiff of nearby Mater Dolorosa Catholic Church and the cutting of the po-boy ribbon by Festival Grand Marshal Justin Kennedy of Parkway Bakery.

“It’s nostalgia,” Kennedy said. “This city was built on this sandwich and now this sandwich is built on this city.”

With those words, he cut into a corned beef and gruyere po-boy, divided into small pieces, and invited onlookers to sample away. Within seconds, the sandwich was gone, giving early arrivals a head start on the gastronomic festivities.

Rosemary Schellhaas and Ronald Burzelleri were among the early birds, stopping to chat with various vendors before deciding exactly which po-boys they would try. They weren’t messing around. They had stopped eating at 5 p.m. Saturday so they could savor as much as their stomachs could handle.

That included a pastrami, gruyere and pickled slaw po-boy from Mondo, the Ray Ray (fried boneless chicken, ham and Swiss cheese) from Sammy’s Deli and the godfather (meatballs, beef brisket, Italian sausage, mozzarella and gravy) from Vincent’s Italian Cuisine.

“This feels like New Orleans,” Schellhaas said as she scanned the quickly burgeoning crowd. “And I’m glad to see the po-boy get the recognition it deserves.”

Down the street, Jay Teichmann and Ron Chee-Awai, a first-timer, waited anxiously to get their hands on a godfather po-boy. They had just devoured a fried Maine lobster po-boy from GW Fins and had their eyes set on an Asian fried oyster po-boy from Zea’s.

In an area known for its festivals, Teichmann said the po-boy fest tops the list.

“The po-boy is a New Orleans icon,” he said. “There’s every different kind of po-boy that you can imagine.”

Tim Sturgell and Katie Knepper, newcomers to New Orleans, were attending the fest for the first time, and like many seasoned festgoers, arrived early.

“Of all the festivals in New Orleans, this is the one I wanted to make it to,” Knepper said. “We got here an hour beforehand just so we could take it all in.”

The couple shared a fried Maine lobster po-boy and agreed that it was a great choice. But Knepper said her favorite by far was the Palace Café’s Poutine Boy, a combination of roast beef, French fries, cheese and gravy.

“That was something else,” she said. “That gets my vote as the best one.”