There’s a reason fusion has become something like a dirty word in culinary circles. There’s nothing wrong with intermingling culinary traditions and flavors, but there are wrong ways to do it. From artificial combinations to co-opting traditional techniques as gimmicks to just outright bad ideas (Think: wasabi mashed potatoes), fusion has become the code word for everything that can go wrong when foods meet.
In a way, that’s why I tend to think of the Vietnamese Cajun food that has begun to thrive in Atlanta lately as almost the opposite of fusion. Both Vietnam and Louisiana are former French colonies with access to good water for fishing shellfish and low land for growing rice. In Vietnam, the French baguette became the perfect vehicle for the banh mi, a crispy sandwich loaded with a little bit of meat and pickled veggies and herbs. In Louisiana, that same bread evolved into the more tender loaf loaded with fried seafood and veggies. The similarities are so numerous, the qualities so complementary, that Viet Cajun food seems to require almost no fusing at all.
Atlantans have long flocked to Crawfish Shack Seafood (4337 Buford Highway, Atlanta. 404-329-1610, crawfishshackseafood.com), which sells much of the same menu you might find at a Cajun joint in Louisiana. When I first moved to Atlanta, I was thrilled to find a place that would sell me balls of fried boudin, a regional delicacy that I rarely come across except when visiting family in Lafayette. The boiled crawfish served at Crawfish Shack is as spicy as anything I've ever tasted in a backyard in Baton Rouge, but it also sports a bright, aromatic touch of lemongrass, the culinary contribution of the restaurant's Vietnamese owners.
Any sense of subtlety is thrown out the window at Bon Ton (674 Myrtle St., Atlanta. 404-996-6177, bontonatl.com), a collaboration between the owners of Crawfish Shack and the cocktail wizards formerly of Top Flr. It's a restaurant that understands the irreverent character that makes New Orleans distinct. The cocktail menu sports a frozen Vietnamese iced coffee spiked with Jameson and made with chicory coffee and sweetened condensed milk. The blackened catfish banh mi is the sort of thing that Emeril Lagasse might make if he wanted to throw together a Vietnamese sandwich. The Nashville hot oyster roll borrows from many different styles of cooking, including a Hong Kong-style sauce on the side, but most importantly is just delicious.
At Kajun Crab (5000 Buford Highway, Chamblee. 678-580-0294, Facebook: Kajun Crab Pho and Seafood), on the other hand, the similarities between Vietnamese and Cajun food are even more apparent. The menu offers a dish called spicy Cajun corn, a delicious and indulgently greasy stir-fry of corn kernels, chopped shrimp, smoky sausage and fried shallots. It's very similar to maque choux, a French-influenced dish from Louisiana that I was often told had Native American origins. Yet, it is almost exactly like bap xao, a corn stir-fry with shrimp often sold on the streets in Vietnam.
Even restaurant chains have caught on to the idea. At Loui Loui (3330 Satellite Blvd., Duluth. 678-740-8888, louiloui.com), a budding franchise with locations along the East Coast, boiled crawfish are served with garlic noodles on the side. It's a common Vietnamese-American side dish that many attribute to Thanh Long, a seafood restaurant in San Francisco. I've never heard of garlic noodles being served with boiled crawfish in Louisiana even once, but when they're tossed in a bag with those spicy, buttery crustaceans in Duluth, I couldn't have been more pleased.
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