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“With the James Beard nod, it changed the trajectory of the restaurant,” says Dovi Xiong, who along with wife Maria Nguyen, owns Lafayette’s Casian Seafood. Last February, Casian was named a James Beard Foundation Outstanding New Restaurant semifinalist, a distinction conferred on only 30 restaurants nationwide. Casian’s dark horse nomination was surprising to local foodies as many other Colorado semifinalist nominees—including winner of best chef for the Mountain region, Caroline Glover of Aurora’s Annette—were much more on their radar.
Less familiar was Casian and its featured cuisine—a melding of traditional Louisiana shellfish boils with Southeast Asian ingredients and techniques, specifically that of Hmong fare. But Casian is not the first restaurant of this type along the Front Range. Denver’s Asian Cajun and other now shuttered spots scattered around South Federal Boulevard have been showcasing similar fusion menus for years. There’s also a smattering of newcomers, including Lakewood’s Clawful, a self-described Vietnamese Cajun seafood kitchen, which opened in 2020.
So why is it that these restaurants are now receiving more recognition? A combination of intriguing flavors, inspired by homespun cooking from both North American and Asia, as well as excellent value make it clear why these eateries are ascendant. Of course, James Beard recognition doesn’t hurt either.
It’s easy enough to draw parallels between Southeast Asian and Cajun cuisines with a common emphasis on vibrant flavors, relying heavily on chile peppers and pungent herbs. Seafood, particularly shellfish, also share the spotlight in both culinary traditions. Diem Tran, co-owner of Greenwood Village’s Tea+, a boba shop that dishes out “Viet-Cajun seafood boils,” notes, “Asians like seafood, especially live crawfish, which people aren’t allowed to farm in Vietnam.” She admits she wasn’t familiar with crawfish until after immigrating to Colorado from Vietnam in 1996. “It’s so juicy, and after trying it, I liked it.”
While food historians may provide deeply detailed explanations of the common French influence on Southeast Asian and Cajun fare and how these cuisines intersect. Xiong cuts to the chase when it comes to culinary overlap. From watching TV shows with a Cajun bent, he observed: “They’re eating shell-on seafood and eating rice. That’s exactly how Asian people do it.”
Both Xiong and Tran improve on the traditional Louisiana regional seafood boil with Asian ingredients and techniques. In the aftermath of the Vietnam War, some Southeast Asian immigrants cut their teeth on Cajun cookery after landing on the Gulf Coast around New Orleans. But both Xiong and Tran immigrated directly from Southeast Asia to Colorado, and neither has family on the Gulf Coast. Xiong, fled war-torn Laos as a small child in the 1970s, and draws upon his Hmong background as a starting point for his cookery. His signature Casian Special boil is inspired by the home-cooked meals he ate growing up, and combines seafood with tomato, soy sauce, oyster sauce, black pepper, and fresh cilantro. Tran and her husband, Hieu Nguyen, a co-owner of Tea+, inherited a number of recipes from a restaurant they used to own, Pho Bay in Westminster, and Nguyen went to work to refine them. “It’s a family of good cooks and he was able to play around with the recipes,” says Tran of both her husband and mother-in-law, who hails from Guangdong, China.
The traditional Louisiana boil is just that, spotlighting seafood such as crawfish, mussels, prawns, or clams, all of which are available at both Casian and Tea+. Other boil ingredients typically include a smattering of potent spices, as well as hefty add-ons such as sausage, potatoes, and corn on the cob. But both Xiong and Tran add an Asian stir-fry twist by sautéing the boiled seafood in sauce as a second step. “It marries the protein with the sauce,” Xiong says.
The extra step pays off in both instances, and there’s a certain homespun appeal to the food that you won’t likely experience at a fine-dining establishment. At Casian, the ginger lemongrass garlic butter is the perfect complement to the large pink head-on shrimp boil, helping to highlight but not overpower the clean flavor of the seafood. Tea+’s all-in boil, with its pitch perfect notes of citrus, heat, and a touch of sweet, provides an appropriately assertive backdrop to the expertly cooked live crawfish. Tran is definitely onto something when she says, “Customers like to soak up the sauce with bread.”
Nowadays, it’s also all too easy to ring up a tab well in excess of $20 for a simple burger, fries and a drink. Against this inflationary backdrop, the value proposition of these seafood houses becomes readily apparent. Casian’s generously portioned large pink shrimp boil, the most expensive thing on the menu, clocks in at a more than fair $25. A pound of crawfish at Tea+ costs just $12.95 a pound, and Tran was running a special buy three pounds, get one free promotion in late June. “It’s not about high profits, it’s about getting people to try the food,” she says.
At the same time, both Tran and Xiong are also adding new traditional Asian dishes to their menus. In some instances, diners attracted by the fusion fare take the next step and sample these authentic offerings. Tran is making her own soft tofu, paired with a ginger syrup and boba that makes for a most appealing dessert. Xiong is also getting high marks for his Hmong sausage, paired with a house-made pepper sauce. “It’s a labor of love. It’s a lot of work starting with a whole slab of pork belly with skin.” He also offers a game hen with rice that’s reminiscent of the snacks he would eat as a child between rounds of playing outside. Next up, he would like to introduce diners to such childhood favorites as kha poon, a chicken curry vermicelli soup. “It’s what you would have if you had a big party growing up,” he says of the dish.
Both Tran and Xiong see their current efforts as clearing a path for their broader culinary aspirations. This month, Tran and Hieu Nguyen are slated to open Seafood Empire, where they plan to serve more signature seafood offerings, in Lakewood’s Belmar neighborhood. For Xiong, the James Beard accolade and rising interest in Asian and Cajun mashups are a means to an end, and not an end onto itself. He sees the current popularity of restaurants such as his as creating an opening to familiarize local diners with more authentic Southeast Asian fare, such as the comforting and celebratory courses he grew up with. “We’re really interested in telling the story of our food,” he notes, “This is my heritage, this is me growing up. I want you to enjoy it.”