Since last fall at Tapalaya—the 6-year-old, small-plates Cajun spot on Northeast 28th Avenue—those muddled-up flavors have been getting a steamed, fried, spicy, sweaty workout under new Vietnamese-Louisianan chef Anh Luu, who grew up at the intersection of both food cultures. It's terrific—my favorite new menu I've tried this year.
Luu had been sous-chef for years at Tapalaya before leaving to work at inventive pan-Asian bar Tanuki. But she returned at the request of Tapalaya's owners and began putting her stamp on the dishes as head chef. Some of the makeover has been subtle, a matter of using tried-and-true Vietnamese techniques to deepen the flavors of Cajun favorites the same way Luu's own mother did. Luu's extra-spicy crawfish étouffée now has shrimp paste and lime and lemongrass, amid the classic bell peppers and celery and bay leaves, a slight sweet-bitter tinge at the edge of the palate. The oh-so-buttery crawfish has star anise in the boil. There's a tender pork belly banh mi ($6) snuggled up with the po'boys, touched up with the fatty kick of chicken-liver mayo.
Get the blackened catfish ($7) some evening, and it smacks you right in the mouth. Turns out you throw in a bath of ginger, cilantro, lemongrass and sambal chili along with New Orleans' famous paprika-cayenne blackening seasoning, and it blooms like a late-winter rose: fragrant and an utter surprise. It's like it was always meant to be there, with the light notes of the Vietnamese spicing bringing out the earthier Cajun seasonings, broadening and deepening the flavor at once.
The most interesting or off-track stuff often finds its way only onto the specials menu, which rotates out every week or so. Late last fall, Luu threw down Vietnamese chicken wings ($10) with fish sauce, cilantro and mint that layered in an herbal subtlety often missing from a bar plate that's usually a sticky-sweet garlic cluster bomb. I have not seen the wings return, and I would desperately like them to. In subsequent weeks, I got some pleasant but not earthshaking honey-chili Brussels sprouts, a pungent rare-beef salad with hoisin, and some terrifically fiery lemongrass mussels that felt like they could cure illness. Soon, Luu will inaugurate an unorthodox, hybrid five-spice recipe she grinds herself and already uses to cook at home—a mix of anise, coriander, fennel, cayenne and nutmeg.
One of the highlights of a late-year specials menu—a wildly flavorful coconut pork with pickled mustard greens ($9) that approximate Vietnamese bitter greens—has popped up in a slightly different, tamer form in Tapalaya's new brunch menu, as a positively juicy rice bowl with a fried egg ($9). But the familiar homestyle Vietnamese dish got a bit of a backwoods twist: Luu now mixes in Coca-Cola with coconut milk on the braise rather than use the traditional coconut water and sugar, a tenderizing trick known to every old Southern boy since Coke invented Santa Claus. The pork is gorgeously tender, the coconut equally gentle in its accents—it's a beautiful dish for the early-morning soft at heart—although I did miss the pungency of the greens-forward first iteration.
Next to cheesy grits and steak Diane, adventurous eaters at brunch can also go for mien ga ($8), Vietnamese chicken noodle soup that's gussied up with the American brunch staple of poached egg. The soup is mild in terms of spice, but not herb. The soup is deeply floral, and loaded with anise that's all the more prominent in a light chicken broth, with a boatload of slippery glass noodles and chicken chunks. For the chicken stock of the mien ga, Luu uses the bay leaf-and-Worcestershire braise from last evening's faithfully Southern-style fried chicken, with the addition of charred onions, ginger, lime juice, star anise and fish sauce.
And about that chicken. It's light and flaky, with breading just on the right side of crisp, colored with an unexpected hit of spice from the house "Tap's Mix" seasoning—some of my favorite fried chicken in town, period—although the beignets that came with it at brunch were a little dense, in a Portland-wide syndrome I can only attribute to water, elevation and lack of humidity.
That terrific fried chicken, along with the equally flavorful, mostly orthodox shrimp étouffée and jambalaya, point to what's going very right at Tapalaya. The baseline Southern food remains solid-to-excellent fare for the older comfort-food crowd likely to haunt any place with New Orleans in the DNA. But at the menu's edges and under its surface, Luu makes it clear she considers Creole a living and vital food tradition, not something to stick in the museum next to the piano blues and zydeco.
- Order this: Wings ($10) or whatever else is on special, blackened catfish ($7), coconut pork at brunch ($9).
- Iâll pass: Salad with lemongrass dressing, fried okra.
EAT: Tapalaya, 28 NE 28th Ave., 232-6652, tapalaya.com. 4-9:30 pm Monday-Thursday, 4-10:30 pm Friday-Saturday, 4-9 pm Sunday. Brunch 9 am-3 pm Friday-Sunday.