Sometimes a restaurant sounds so freakishly odd, a chowhound has no choice but to drive 15 miles out of the way to check out a reader tip. Crazy Pho Cajun, a Cajun-Vietnamese restaurant in Federal Way, was my most recent fun find.
Cajun-Vietnamese sounds a little like a food dare, but root around in the bayou long enough and the culinary marriage of Cajun-Vietnamese makes at least a little sense.
Circle back several generations and you’ll find a common ancestor making culinary cousins of Vietnamese and Cajun cuisine – the French. Ok, I guess that’s a pretty esoteric point, but one I find interesting. French technique and ingredients show up in both cuisines, but here’s a connection that’s less oblique. More recently, Vietnamese immigrants landed in Louisiana, and Vietnamese fishermen transferred their fishing know-how to Louisiana’s fishing industry. A cultural kinship was born. A 2010 New York Times article chronicled Vietnamese-owned crawfish restaurants – fusion restaurants followed nationwide.
Blending those cuisines was a natural evolution for someone like Anthony Nguyen, co-owner of Crazy Pho Cajun. The idea percolated with help from a business partner, Thao Tran, whose family emigrated from Vietnam to Louisiana. Tran fell in love with bayou food and learned to cook Cajun. Nguyen’s family emigrated to Seattle in the 1980s and started Pho Bac in Seattle’s International District, then opening an outpost in Tacoma’s Hilltop neighborhood. Nguyen said combining the Northwest’s affinity for pho and his business partner’s knowledge of Cajun cuisine was a natural progression for the second generation Vietnamese restaurateurs.
Crazy Pho Cajun opened about six months ago in a little strip mall across from the Federal Way Commons.
The South Sound is a region short on Cajun food. From the Bayou, Creole Cafe, and Madea’s were all restaurants that have come and gone. That’s why I was circling Crazy Pho Cajun with interest — could it fill that culinary dearth of authentic Cajun eats?
Not exactly. Nguyen insisted the recipes shouldn’t be construed as true Cajun. While diners will find po’ boy sandwiches, gumbo, etouffee and boiled crawfish on the menu, the dishes are a mish-mash of techniques and spicing. Some dishes are better than others.
The menu is broken into separate lists of Vietnamese and Cajun, but some menu items — such as the Cajun pho and crawfish and andouille vermicelli bowl — are a merge of both cuisines. Even the beer list is a merge — diners will find bottles of Abita alongside Saigon beer.
The Cajun-loving foodie in me balked at gumbo ($7.50) made with a watery chicken broth. It was fairly tasty for a thin soup, but it wasn’t the dark, thick(ish) roux-based soup I love. Etouffee came with a gummy texture I’ve never seen in that dish ($7.50), although the base of the stew wafted of shellfish. The Louisiana “holy trinity” – onions, peppers and celery – were happily accounted for. It wouldn’t be Cajun cuisine unless it included the trifecta, right?
The po’ boy sandwiches are worth the detour – not exactly authentic, but a close approximation. The cornmeal coating on the fried shrimp po’ boy tasted crunchy-airy. The sandwiches also are made with breaded catfish or a sausage link (all $7.95). Dressed with pickles, lettuce and tomatoes, the flavor was just right, as was the size.
Battered Cajun shrimp with fries ($8.95) will feed your hankering for guilty-pleasure dining. Like the shrimp and catfish in the po’ boys, the breading jacket was clingy and tasty. On three visits, fried foods never tasted greasy.
Red beans and rice with sliced andouille style sausage ($5.95) was a dish to take home and let sit in the fridge overnight for a treat at lunch the next day.
Louisiana transplants might be missing Cajun boiled seafood, but that’s no guarantee at Crazy Pho Cajun. Because of the difficulty in sourcing crawfish and crab, the seafood is not always available, so call ahead if you’d like to eat it. Pricing fluctuates with the market.
Probably the most successful dish on the menu is a perfect intersection of Cajun spicing and Vietnam’s most famous food export — pho. The crawfish pho ($8.50/$9.75) wafted with those heady Cajun spices and was full of vermicelli noodles, plump rounds of crawfish meat, sliced sausage and as much heat as you can order and/or stand. That bowl of pho was seriously good eating.
Crazy Pho Cajun
Where: 32034 23rd Ave. S., Federal Way, 206-429-3893, Facebook
Sue Kidd dines anonymously, and The News Tribune pays for all meals.