In her hunt for great bargains, Lauren Monitz is sharing awesome local gems to binge on a budget and helping you determine if your favorite Denver restaurants are truly the Real Deal.
I am very skeptical of fusion restaurants because it’s hard enough to excel in one genre — let alone two. But there's nothing I love more than oddball combinations that make it a point to try. When the Asian Cajun mysteriously popped up on one of my restaurant locator apps (a sign from the technology gods — the west-side eatery is nowhere close to my home), I was intrigued to say the least. The Vietnamese family who owns the restaurant wasn't sure Colorado would be receptive to Cajun cuisine when they moved to Denver from New Orleans four years ago, so they did what any entrepreneurial family would do – tested the market. Against all odds, Asian Cajun has thrived, garnering a solid number of faithfuls for those in the know about this little West Alameda gem that's open daily from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. There you'll find people at all hours of the day getting their East-meets-West fix.
The Asian Cajun fully embraces its weirdness, starting with an adorable logo of a crawfish wearing a conical straw hat. It's a bit of a theme restaurant, with an interior staged like a harbor, complete with buoys, raised platform “docks” and fishing signs to up the kitsch factor. It's a great place for the kiddos to experiment with unfamiliar food by distracting them with the fun ambiance while avoiding the typically miserable fast-food experience families tend to fall back on.
With live lobster tanks to showcase the fresh catches, the Asian Cajun is more than just fusion: It’s actually two restaurants in one. With separate Asian and Cajun sides of the menu and hybrid dishes sprinkled throughout, the many choices covering two distinct cultural cuisines makes deciding on just one dish nearly impossible. Thankfully most items are priced under $15 and it’s easy to share a smorgasbord and make your own mix-and-match international feast. With a kid’s size pho ($5) or gumbo ($3.95) to start, some type of Korean BBQ plate and a fried shrimp entrée, the combination is a ridiculous variety of spices and sauces that make for one hell of a mind-blowing flavor explosion.
The star of the show and the Real Deal, though? The market-priced seafood boils. With crawfish ($9.95), blue crab ($13.95), shrimp ($11.95), baby clams ($9.95), snow crab ($13.95), tiger shrimp ($16.95), New Zealand mussels ($9.95), king crab ($29.95), Dungeness crab ($29.95), and lobster ($29.95) all available year-round by the pound, there's no longer a need to wait for summer to roll through for a true Louisiana-style treat. Both times I’ve gone, snow crab has been priced at under $15 – way too good of a deal to pass up, especially given the meatiness and juiciness of the legs. While a pound may not look like much on its own, paired with a few other plates, it’s one of the best seafood steals in Denver. And with the option to add the all the fixin's (sausage, corn and potatoes) for just $2.50, it’s a hearty party on a plate.
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With each of the boils, you have the choice of classic Cajun, garlic butter, lemon butter or a signature Asian Cajun sauce — a combination of garlic, butter, and citrus. I tried the Asian Cajun the first time and found it a bit too harsh — with an almost burn-your-throat-out heat. The second time, I went with the more traditional garlic butter, which still had plenty of Cajun flavor to pack a punch. This time, I was even asked how spicy I wanted it. The heat level is true to the standard Asian restaurant scale, given that medium will still get you sweating.
Verdict: The Vietnamese/Cajun combo, with a few other Asian styles thrown in for good measure, is the perfect marriage – just kooky enough to keep it interesting, but not run-for-the-fences crazy. Gloriously messy and totally not date appropriate, is it the freshest seafood you’ll ever eat? No, but the boils are fun and do their job to satisfy the craving year-round without breaking the bank. Despite using frozen fish when certain items are out of season, with how much seasoning is packed into the bag (we’re talking garlic for days), it’s highly unlikely that you'll even notice. And who can really say no to Asian or Cajun? You’re basically getting two meals for the price of one.