It’s no secret: Portland has become the fusion capital of the west. Whether you’re heading out for a night of New American/Asian or Pan-Asian/Southern Barbecue, there’s no shortage of culinary cultural mashups to choose from in the Rose City.
And yet, there was still a corner left untouched. In a city nearly bursting with highfalutin epicurean ideas, one door was still left unopened. Then along came Tapalaya with their brave new Cajun/Vietnamese fusion concept, the door was opened, and all bets were off.
Fusion-novation at Tapalaya
Although Tapalaya now proudly trumpets a menu filled with interesting combinations, it wasn’t always so. Back when owner Chantal Angot opened Tapalaya, she was serving an entirely non-fusion need.
“It was 2008 and there really wasn’t much Cajun food here,” Angot explains. “So we figured small plates would be a good way to introduce people to the cuisine.”
Having always been a front-of-the-house restaurateur, Angot needed a chef for her new Cajun hotspot, and found serendipity in New Orleans transplant Anh Luu.
“My family emigrated to New Orleans from Vietnam before I was born,” says Luu. “I was the only one of my family born here, and I knew from a young age I wanted to be a chef.”
Having worked in a number of restaurants growing up, Luu moved to Portland not long after Hurricane Katrina hit. Shortly after her arrival, she ended up at Tapalaya, working her way up from line cook to sous chef to eventual executive chef. Along the way, her Vietnamese roots asserted itself in her food, and not necessarily by choice. The genesis of her Cajun/Vietnamese fusion can be traced back to the city of her birth.
“When you live in New Orleans, it’s different from other big cities,” Luu explains. “In New Orleans, the Cajun-ness of the city seeps into the food culture and not the other way around. So you’ll have Mexican food with Cajun flair and Italian food with Cajun flair. Traditional Cajun food now encompasses a lot of other culture’s food, including my own.”
Still, would Portland residents embrace the potential strangeness of this kind of fusion? Judging by their first foray into the style, the answer was a resounding yes.
One of their most popular menu items were the Boudin sausage egg rolls. Rather than traditionally cocooning the sausage, Luu rolls it up into an egg roll. Though experimental, the Boudin egg rolls were an instant hit.
“These dishes have an aspect of my childhood or some sort of food memory growing up,” Luu says.
“We started doing it secretly,” Angot interjects with a smile, “then when people started to respond to it, we finally made the decision to go with it and promote it and now everyone can taste the love,” Angot playfully finishes.
Beginning in 2013, Tapalaya blasted their new direction across the media landscape in a full court press. Since then, they’ve never looked back.
Their current menu starts the evening with some true ‘fusion-novation’ in a libation. Tapalaya’s full bar churns out some truly unique and tasty beverages. Although Tapalaya may be known for its fusion flair and small plate goodness, their drinks are not to be outdone.
One of their most popular drinks, the Uptown NOLA combines the particular kick of ginger liqueur with a peach-infused bourbon, sweet vermouth and bitters. Brought to you in a chilled metal martini glass, it won’t take long for this tasty beverage to make its way from your uptown palate to your downtown stomach.
For something less penthouse and more day-at-the-beach, try the Hawaii-504. Aptly named after New Orleans’ area code, this Flor de Cana Gren Reserva mixes quite well with New Deal ginger liqueur and Luu’s house-made five-spice.
“It’s a little different from traditional five-spice,” Luu explains. “I put cayenne and nutmeg in it instead of cinnamon and Szechwan peppercorn.”
Step into Tapalaya and, as Angot put it, “taste the love.” That Luu enjoys making this food is quite apparent in both the flavor and texture.
Taste the Love at Tapalaya
With a couple lovely beverages sloshing around inside an empty stomach, it’s time to move on to dinner. We can’t deny having high hopes for this cuisine. Far too often a fusion fixation results in the flame-out of failure (say that five times fast). Fortunately, Luu is a steady hand at helm.
Two delectable grits-based dishes make the bookends for some of the best fried chicken and bourbon sauce around. First up, the Crawfish Anh Luu. This unique take on the New Orleans staple, Crawfish Monica, replaces the pasta with stoneground grits, and we most definitely are not mad about that.
Bits of crawfish in a Cajun crème sauce are poured over the grits before being adorned with green onion, garlic, trims tock and butter. The crawfish is moist, juicy and perfectly highlighted by the decadent white wine and crème sauce.
Grits don’t come easy, but Luu has the technique down pat. Expect them to be soft and creamy, with just the right texture and no gumminess.
Having made short work of the crawfish, next up comes the buttermilk fried chicken with house-made bourbon sauce. “We braise it before it’s fried,” Luu explains. “This way it doesn’t take as long to fry, yet is even more moist and flavorful.”
The chicken, ensconced in crunchy, delicious buttermilk batter, is cooked to perfection. Drizzle a little bourbon sauce over the crispy outer shell and bite down for a bit of heaven. Two pieces of chicken seal the deal on this dish.
Last up, and for good reason, is the crown jewel of the evening, undoubtedly Tapalaya’s most popular dish, the New Orleans barbecue gulf shrimp over grits. The dish arrives with three huge prawns – head on – looking up at you, just begging to be eaten.
Set delicately over a bed of (again) perfectly executed stoneground grits, the plump, moist shrimp is slathered in a barbecue sauce that will leave you looking for a plane ticket to New Orleans – or the directions to Tapalaya.
The base of the sauce is composed of Worcestershire sauce, white wine, black pepper and butter. It’s then cooked down until the Worcestershire and white wine begins to caramelize, then a little crème is added and it is reduced down again. The shrimp is then cooked within that mixture and finished off with butter before being set atop the grits.
It isn’t hyperbole to say this is some of the best shrimp we’ve tasted in some time. “Gulf shrimp is way different from West Coast shrimp,” Luu says with a smile.
She’s not kidding. The shrimp have a brininess that you can’t find on the Left Coast. They’re huge, juicy, and fishy in all the right ways. Accompanied by an amazing sauce and perfect grits and you simply can’t go wrong with this dish.
With Tapalaya chugging along, Luu continues to make a name for herself on the Portland food scene. Having recently been flown down to New Orleans to do a dinner for the Ace Hotel, Luu is basking in the sunlight.
Bask away, we say, because Tapalaya has a lot to be proud of. Few places are able to pull off innovative fusion in such a convincing way.
For a truly unique taste of Vietnamese-inspired Cajun cuisine, stop by Tapalaya. They are located at 28 NE 28th Avenue in Portland Oregon. For hours and menu information visit their website at www.tapalaya.com or give them a call at (503) 232-6652.
William Bessette – PortlandMetroLive.com Contributor
William Bessette is a published author, poet and longtime journalist who has been covering politics, entertainment, culture and travel for over twelve years. He currently works from his home in the Pacific Northwest profiling restaurants, reviewing local plays and reporting on regional, national and international travel.