As a line 40 people long extended down Oak Street, hungry patrons waited anxiously while the sandwich slinger repeated a ritual more than 50 years old.
He hollowed out the French bread and stuffed it deep with loads of shrimp, smothered in a smooth, buttery sauce.
Hank Willie, 56, looked on eagerly, craning his neck in anticipation.
“This is most definitely what I’ve been looking forward to all week,” Willie said, waiting in line for his turn to buy one of Pascal’s Manale’s famous New Orleans barbecue shrimp po-boys. “And the more juice they pile on it, the better.”
Willie had traveled from Belle Chasse to dig in during Sunday’s Oak Street Po-Boy Festival, an 8-year-old tradition that attracts thousands of visitors and locals to Uptown New Orleans for a day devoted to the city’s most famous sandwich.
Extending along Oak Street from South Carrollton Avenue to Eagle Street and down Leonidas Street to Willow Street, the 2014 festival featured more than 50 vendors from all over the city.
Several restaurants and food trucks served all the old classics, like the shrimp po-boy from Pascal’s Manale, the Creole hot sausage po-boy from Vaucresson’s Sausage and Gattuso’s sloppy roast beef po-boy.
They paid homage to the story of the New Orleans sandwich, which originated in a coffee stand near the French Market in 1929. Run by the Martin brothers, the restaurant helped feed thousands of union workers during a transit strike that garnered support from around the city. As the story goes, the need for more bread led to sandwiches made from bigger-sized loaves.
Although crowds waited up to half an hour in line Sunday for a taste of the usual tried-and-true favorites, the festival also served in abundance the kind of unusual dishes it’s become known for: eclectic variations that vendors dreamed up, some exclusively for the event.
Holiday-themed options included the turducken sausage po-boy from the Knights of Columbus, for example, while vegetarians enjoyed the wild mushroom cro-boy, a Breads on Oak dish that offered a mix of organic crimini and local shiitake mushrooms in a spicy vegan remoulade, topped with greens and tomato and stuffed in vegan croissant bread.
Seafood lovers, too, had plenty of options to choose from. Lump crabmeat and boiled shrimp graced Seither’s seafood au-gratin po-boy, along with a roux featuring onion, celery, bell pepper, garlic and herbs, and three different kinds of cheese. The Sammich presented a speckled trout meuniere po-boy dressed with smoked tomatoes, arugula, celery leaf salad and meuniere mayo, while Bucktown Burger & Fish Co. served a “hot & sticky fried shrimp po-boy” — a sandwich featuring sweet and hot citrus sauce over fried shrimp, topped with coleslaw and fried jalapenos.
Last year, Willie said, he had been a little more adventurous, getting a crabcake po-boy. The experience was so good that it was worth coming back to sample more, even though every dish meant waiting in another line.
Mid-City resident Troy Curtis, a 50-year-old grandmother of three, agreed. Curtis also was there for the second year in a row, and she said that while the festival was about as crowded as last year, the food was just as delicious.
“It’s really good,” Curtis said between bites of her sausage po-boy with smoked brisket, chili and cheese served by Crescent Pie & Sausage. Vendors offered free Tums alongside the po-boy, which also could come with a plate of jambalaya.
“And it’s really hot,” Curtis added.
Although the po-boy was the featured menu item all up and down Oak Street, other dishes proved to be just as popular. Mary O’Connor said she and her husband John thoroughly enjoyed some chocolate cannoli — a dish that always brings the former New Jersey resident back to the Italian street festivals that are so popular in New York.
“That was awesome,” added O’Connor, a 73-year-old saleswoman living in Bossier City. “We had that as our antipasto, our appetizer.”
Part-time engineer and Uptown resident Charles Nelson took a break from the po-boys to relish Truburger’s raw and chargrilled oysters, cooked outside on the sidewalk on Oak Street.
By midafternoon, he and his wife already were working on their second helpings of food, and they said they had thoroughly enjoyed walking around and checking out the different options.
“This is our first time,” said Nelson, 67. “I’d heard it was crowded, but it’s worth a couple of hours, walking through the crowd.”
Parents brought children, who enjoyed a Family Fest put on by St. Andrew’s Episcopal School. Designed to make the festival “easier for families,” the $5 event featured a private nursing and changing station, baby-sitting services, face painting and wall climbing.
Christy Weidman, an Uptown mom who was at the festival with her two children, said she appreciated the fact there was something kid-friendly at the event, so the whole family could be entertained.
“We found something for them to do,” said Weiderman, 39, as she walked hurriedly along the street in search of the best po-boy. “Now we’re on a mission to get food for the adults.”