Anh Luu’s crawfish étouffée nachos at Tapalaya

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STORY AND PHOTOS BY MATT MORNICK

It was 2015. A long line snaked through the Kerns neighborhood down East Burnside Street. The Oregonian’s Nacho Week was in full effect. Live brass music washed over patrons as they descended upon Tapalaya, the cozy New Orleans–themed restaurant, for executive chef Anh Luu’s mystifying — and delicious — creation: crawfish étouffée nachos.

Now the chef and owner of Tapalaya, Anh has found her stride fusing Vietnamese ingredients with Cajun recipes. This, and her knack for improvisation, has created a loyal following and a dish worth sharing.

“Traditional Cajun food is tasty, but it ain’t pretty,” says Anh. “It is not good for you, and it is kind of old school. I knew I could elevate Cajun food in my own way, pulling from tradition, blending flavors, enhancing ingredients, and making something people recognize, yet with an Asian twist.”

Asian-Cajun tapas were a natural fit for the New Orleans–born Vietnamese-American chef. In 1979, Anh’s family emigrated from Vietnam. After months in refugee camps in Hong Kong and San Francisco, they made their home in the port city of New Orleans, a city at a similar latitude as Hanoi, Vietnam.
Anh’s father ran an electronics repair company, fixing televisions and all sorts of household appliances. “As a kid, I remember watching six different televisions at one time–I would watch “Sesame Street,” “Family Matters,” “Saved by the Bell,” and “Full House” all on a wall of TV sets.”

Without fail, days in the Luu household would culminate with Anh’s mother making dinner from scratch. “Time with my mother walking through farmers’ markets and making food at home inspired me to work with food,” says Anh. “After working at the TV repair store for years, my father bought the store and took over the business, just as I bought Tapalaya from my mentor in March 2017, after working here for seven years. I literally followed in my parents’ footsteps.”

Crawfish étouffée is a traditional Cajun and Creole dish. Although the two cuisines are often grouped together, there’s a distinct difference between Cajun and Creole preparations. “Cajun food comes from the bayou, the countryside,” Anh explains. “Creole food has ties to the city, where Europeans had access to tomatoes, which were once difficult to attain and considered a delicacy. Thus, Creole food is tomato-heavy. It incorporates a lighter-style roux. Darker roux is more common in Cajun food, which is also arguably spicier and more complex.”

Tapalaya’s crawfish étouffée nachos is based on a Creole-style recipe. “I’ve distinguished my take on the dish from the original étouffée recipe by adding Vietnamese flavors to it,” says Anh. “When The Oregonian invited us to participate in Nacho Week, the thick stew-like crawfish étouffée was a perfect fit.”

Crawfish étouffée nachos are seasoned with five-spice and Cajun seasoning, made in house. Anh adds a thick roux, similar to the consistency of cheese sauce, to give body to the shrimp and chicken stock. Shrimp paste, lemon grass, fried chili paste, and Crystal hot sauce heightens the spice and gives the dish its warm, vinegary base. Set over fried wonton chips with shredded cheddar and cotija cheese, and garnished with green onions and cilantro, it was created as a one-time promotional dish, but would go on to become a standby on the menu.

“It took time to embrace the fact that the nachos were so well received. People loved it,” says Anh. “When I started at Tapalaya, I learned to run a restaurant, but I didn’t have a clear vision for the food. It takes time to get to know yourself as a chef. It was difficult to be innovative in my own sense without feeling like I was taking others’ ideas. In 2013, as the executive chef, I began to find my voice and trust my instincts. Others in the industry listened to my ideas and nudged me to see them through. Now I would rather do something nobody else has done and fail, than do something commonplace and be slightly successful at it. I’d rather take a risk, create something new, and expose people to a dish they’ve never had before and come to love.”

Chef Anh recommends an Abita Amber with this dish.

Tapalaya
28 NE 28th Avenue, 97232 • (503) 232-6652 • tapalaya.com

Crawfish Étouffée Nachos

Serves 8–10 | 1 hour and 30 minutes active time

This dish is a wonderful hang-out food to share with a group of friends. The recipe is straightforward, but it has many ingredients, and the order in which you cook things matters. Follow the order outlined below. This recipe yields approximately four quarts of crawfish etouffee, which you can easily freeze and save for later. One pack of wonton wrappers will produce about 80 chips if cut in half.

If deep-frying is too great an undertaking, Anh recommends Hood River’s Juanita’s Tortilla Chips for a delicious Pacific Northwest alternative.

Ingredients

1/2 pound butter
1 pound all-purpose flour
2 yellow onions, large dice
2 red and green bell peppers, large dice
4 stalks celery, large dice
3 quarts chicken broth
2 cups canned ground tomato
1 bay leaf
1 stalk lemon grass, pounded and minced
1/3 cup Cajun seasoning (Paul Prudhomme’s Seafood Magic recommended)
2 tablespoons Crystal hot sauce
1/4 cup fish sauce (Squid Brand recommended)
2 tablespoons garlic, minced
1 teaspoon fried chili paste
1 lime, juice only
5.6-ounce can minced prawns (Yeo’s brand recommended)
2 quarts oil for deep-frying (rice bran oil recommended)
1 pack 40 wonton wrappers, cut diagonally in half
2 pounds pre-cooked and shelled crawfish tail meat
2 cups shredded cheddar cheese
1 cup grated cotija cheese
1 cup green onions, sliced thin
1 bunch cilantro, rough chop

Recipe

In a large pot over medium-low heat, melt butter completely, then whisk in the flour to make a roux. Make sure the roux is smooth with no flour lumps. Cook on medium-low for 7–10 minutes stirring continuously with a whisk. The roux consistency should look like smooth, wet sand. There should be no change in color. Simply cook down the flour taste.

Add onions, bell peppers, and celery. Switch to a wooden spoon and stir until veggies are coated in roux. Cook on medium-low heat for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally to ensure the roux does not burn.

Add chicken broth, ground tomato, bay leaf, lemon grass, Cajun seasoning, Crystal hot sauce, fish sauce, garlic, fried chili paste, lime juice, and can of minced prawns. Do not add crawfish until the very end of cooking. Cook on high heat until mixture comes to a boil. Reduce to a simmer with medium heat and cook until onions turn translucent, about 45 minutes. In another pot, heat the oil for deep frying until it reaches 300˚F.

While the etouffee is cooking, deep-fry the wonton chips. If the oil is too hot, the chips will brown quickly and taste burned. Chips are finished frying once they cease to sizzle or bubble. Lay the chips on a paper bag to drain oil. Lightly salt chips when warm.

When the onions turn translucent, taste the etouffee. If you want a saltier or spicier etouffee, add more fish sauce or fried chili paste (careful, the chili paste is melt-your-face spicy).

Add crawfish and bring back to a simmer. Then turn heat off immediately. The crawfish is pre-cooked, therefore only warm up the crawfish in the etouffee. The crawfish étouffée is now ready to ladle over wonton chips. Be sure to sprinkle a good amount of cheddar cheese, cotija cheese, green onions, and cilantro over the top of the nachos. Enjoy!


West Coast photojournalist Matt Mornick specializes in photographing food, people, and travel. His portfolio is available at mornick.com.

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