Vietnamese and Cajun are unlikely cousins.
They're both French creole cuisines, both river cultures, both addicted to spice. So consider it kismet that one of the largest migrations of Vietnamese families arrived in 1970s New Orleans, the hometown of Tapalaya chef Anh Luu, who's begun blending the two food cultures at the 7-year-old restaurant, the same way her own mother did.
You could order up the Cajun classics and never notice the difference—but Luu has exercised subtle transformations on them. Her extra-spicy crawfish étouffée uses shrimp paste and lemongrass alongside the Cajun trinity, and her buttery crawfish has star anise in the boil. Get the blackened catfish ($7) some evening, and it smacks you right in the mouth with ginger, cilantro, lemongrass and sambal chili along with her own paprika-cayenne blackening—but it's like it was always meant to be there.
The light notes of the Vietnamese spicing bring out the earthier Cajun seasonings, broadening and deepening the flavor at once.
Pro tip: Ask for the specials menu. There's always a mash-up you don't expect. Or maybe just get a plate of Anh Luu's excellent wings.
GO: 28 NE 28th Ave., 232-6652, tapalaya.com. 4-9:30 pm Monday-Thursday, 4-10:30 pm Friday-Saturday, 4-9 pm Sunday, 9 am-3 pm Saturday-Sunday. $$.