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Rostra rating: 4
The bi-directional influence of French and Vietnamese cuisine dates back at least to the 19th century, but its latest manifestation has taken New Orleans by storm in the early 21st. At Tapalaya, chef Anh Luu has been serving the Crescent City’s intermingled cajun, creole, and Vietnamese flavors to the denizen’s of Rip City since 2014. Her small plate “Asian-Cajun tapas” menu is a great introduction to food that is at once traditional and post-fusion.
Tapalaya’s playful decor, helpful and friendly staff, and combined PNW/Big Easy conviviality (think pFriem IPA on tap and live music Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sunday brunch) make it very easy to return again and again to sample the latest steps in this centuries-long culinary dance.
Team Mago has indulged in happy hour, dinner, and Sunday brunch. Here are our tasting notes from each.
Happy Hour Menu Notes
Boudin balls made with fried Cajun rice, liver and pork sausage with lime ponzu: Everything fried is good at Tapalaya, but these babies are edible crack. What is not to like about fried pig and liver candy? Not to mention the acidic umami hit delivered by the ponzu sauce (oh, I guess I just did), which takes the dish up yet another level.
Stuffed mushrooms filled with corn bread & cheddar cheese: In a restaurant of bold flavors, these shrooms were a bit under seasoned. A generous pour of Crystal hot sauce helps, but this dish needs rethinking along more classic Cajun lines or with a Vietnamese twist, or both.
Dinner Menu Notes
Deep fried oysters with cocktail sauce: perfect fryolatored medium breaded oysters with just the right hit of wasabi in the cocktail sauce.
Turmeric red beans and rice: correctly cooked beans with plenty of turmeric, but they needed heat, acid, and pigage (the friend of all legumes). These problems are solved with Crystal hot sauce (available table side) and the addition of andouille sausage (for an additional charge of $3 and well worth it).
Asian Slaw with Napa cabbage, bean sprouts, carrots, cherry tomatoes, cilantro, mint, and honey chili lime dressing: amazing slaw with unrepentant heat and just the right amount of sweetness. TeamMago loved the fresh mint notes.
Sweet tater fries with remoulade: another fryolator tour de force, but you could dip used tongue depressors in that remoulade and it would still taste great.
Creole Caesar with romaine, Parmesan, crispy cornbread crumbs, fried capers, and blackened shrimp: definitely not a genuine Caesar and the capers were fried a tad too long. There was a split decision on the blackened shrimp. I thought they were correctly seasoned, but our unpaid Montucky MagoGuide interns found them too aggressively seasoned.
Mago Tip: Our excellent waiter Shawn suggested some of chef Anh Luu’s Thai basil emulsion to accompany vegetarian dishes. He was right on the money, except that IOHO that deep green flavor bomb goes with just about anything on the Tapalaya menu.
Crawfish Anh Luu in a Cajun cream sauce over grits: Shawn characterized this rich and spicy preparation with a bracing shot of acidity served over perfect grits as Tapalaya’s signature dish. He. Was. Soooo. Right.
Brunch Menu Notes
Fried oyster Benedict with caper Hollandaise: This dish was so good that your humble correspondent could only sit and watch as our corporate council issued an injunction on sharing. Appeals to a higher court went unheard.
Fried oyster BLT po’boy with remoulade: Those killer oysters and classic remoulade sauce are wonderfully repurposed on a toasted sub roll with thick, seriously crispy bacon and quite decent tomatoes for the time of year. Tapalaya’s po’boys come in two sizes, manageable and enormous. If you want to eat anything else at brunch, go for the smaller option or starve yourself for at least 24 hours before ordering.
Fried chicken with beignets and bourbon syrup: what Popeyes’s wishes it could do. The medium thick batter with a nice warm cayenne burn adhered to the juicy chicken throughout our meal. More kudos for the friturier. The beignets with bourbon syrup were a bit heavier than what I have had in New Orleans (see our item on Café du Monde and our New Orleans post A NOLA Dust-Up: MagoGuide vs. Saveur in the Big Easy), but I still enjoyed these rich and cakey fritters while getting plenty of powdered sugar all over my shirt. They pair perfectly with the fried chicken, beating your typical chicken and waffles all to hell.
Fried taters: damn good medium diced spuds, well seasoned with a touch of heat in the tasty bespoke catsup.
Bottom line: Great food. Funky dining space. Live music. Creative boozy drinks plus small well curated tap and wine lists (very reasonable corkage fee). What’s not to like?