In A Federal Case, I'll be eating my way up Federal Boulevard - south to north - within Denver city limits. I'll be skipping the national chains and per-scoop Chinese joints, but otherwise I'll report from every vinyl booth, walk-up window and bar stool where food is served. Here's the report on this week's stop...
My dinner companions on a recent trip to Vietnam Bay Seafood and Grill don't scare easily. They included a soccer fan just back from a tour of Peru, where he drank a rainbow spectrum of pisco sours and sampled grilled alpaca and cuy (that's guinea pig to you); a software salesman whose previous engagements included a year in Singapore and two years teaching high-school math and taking measure of the best crawfish boils in rural Louisiana; his fiancée, an intrepid home cook who had to mail-order most of her ingredients to work her way through Rick Bayless's Mexican recipes while marooned for a couple of years in upstate New York; and my wife, Amy, who never misses the chance to sample something new and who long before we met spent time picking ant legs from her teeth and figuring out how to cook whole chicken, head and feet intact, on a camp stove in a remote village in Zimbabwe. Our combination of raw enthusiasm and respect for authenticity proved to be the perfect filter for taking in the barrage of seemingly contradictory flavors and aromas that gushed from Vietnam Bay's kitchen.
Unless you know the history of the building that houses Vietnam Bay, pulling into the parking lot in front doesn't foretell any deviation from the array of Vietnamese restaurants along this stretch of Federal Boulevard south of Alameda. Southeast Asian cuisine with specials pulled from briny waters and kissed by the flame of a hot grill isn't exactly a new concept here on Denver's west side. But this spot with the pristine white facade and nautical blue logo only recently changed its name, colors and ownership from the jaunty, crimson-lettered Red Claw -- a name that hinted a little more directly at the collision of cuisines within. Despite the altered exterior, Vietnam Bay still specializes in Cajun-tinged seafood platters, odd mash-ups of Louisiana flavors with Vietnamese ingredients, and straight-up drinking food accented with delta spirit -- whether from the Mississippi or the Mekong -- and spice levels dialed up to meet cold beer head on.
Given all this, selecting from the menu was a slow process. Some of the dishes -- like po' boy sandwiches and market-priced crawfish by the pound -- were obviously Gulf Coast in origin. But a list of chao -- savory rice porridge similar to Chinese congee -- with various meat additions ranked among the rarer Vietnamese specialties to be found in Federal's soup and noodle houses. Two varieties of snail also stood out among the Cajun-spiced fries and cream-cheese wontons. And then there were the dishes fused together with nothing but the kitchen's bravado and knack for reinvented comfort food: a stir-fried approximation of shrimp and sausage gumbo topped with Asian dumplings and dubbed "gumling," sauces equally reminiscent of Zatarain's and nuoc mam, hot wings fit for a football Sunday but made more addictive by a burst of tamarind.
We started with an order of those chicken wings with the house fish-sauce glaze; the deep, fermented funk of nuoc mam perfumed the meat but was balanced by soy, sugar, red chile flakes and a slurry of finely chopped herbs. A bowl of ranch dressing went untouched as we scooped the excess glaze from the plate with carrot and celery sticks. Proficiently made spring rolls and egg rolls proved that the kitchen could put out traditional favorites with ease; and the curried frog legs surrounded by a tangle of cilantro and basil was evidence that Vietnam Bay could hold its own with the more well-known and revered Vietnamese restaurants on the strip.
For the main course, we'd gone with the Bay Special -- a mariner's haul of crawfish, shrimp, crab legs, mussels and clams. Our waitress had explained that the amount of crawfish varies depending on the seasonality of the little critters; since Louisiana was just winding down its output and Texas had yet to begin, the mound of crustaceans would be closer to two pounds rather than the three pounds typical at the height of the season. But any doubts about getting shorted disappeared when she returned with a two-handled paella pan overflowing with steamed seafood, including more crawfish than we'd possibly be able to crack our way through. A few whole potatoes, halved corn cobs and a sausage link nestled among the pink and red shells of the shrimp and crab.
Vietnam Bay's seafood by the pound comes with a choice of sauces, with varying degrees of heat and regional influence. Unlike standard Cajun boils, the hybrids that have emerged since Vietnamese immigrants first hit Gulf-state shores more than thirty years ago diverge from finger-licking messiness to downright wrist-deep sloppiness, thanks to the addition of butter (or sometimes margarine). The crawfish aren't just infused with the essence of bay leaf, cayenne and other trade-secret spices that get added to the pot; they're drowned in a slippery concoction that can include minced garlic, fresh herbs or even crushed pineapple, as is the case with Vietnam Bay's pineapple-Cajun sauce. That's what we opted for, of course, since it was the oddest of the lot; we wanted to see if the cooks could actually pull off such a daredevil combination. Pineapple's kitsch factor can often overwhelm its usefulness as a conveyer of acidity and sweetness, while its complex fruit esters sometimes clash with other spices.
Once we dug into the seafood platter, the care and technique that had gone into each element trumped the novelty and excess. The clams and green-lipped mussels -- already plump and tender -- were boosted by a topping of crumbled bacon and crispy fried shallots. The crab legs were moist and easily cracked; our waitress brought us ramekins of salt, pepper and lime as a condiment for the crab meat. Whole, head-on shrimp were subtly infused with the pure essence of the bayou. Only the crawfish were coated in the odd but addictive pineapple sauce we had chosen. Fruit and salt dominated, but a slow-building heat countered the sweet-and-sour bite of the tropical fruit. The thick shells of the crustaceans protected the delicate meat from the powerful sauce, so it was easy to control the exact amount of flavor in each bite. While the house Cajun sauce blend might have been a more successful and integrated marriage of cultures, the pineapple version had an irresistible, untamed charm.
Although my dining companions don't scare easily, they're not what I would call thrill-seekers, either; they share a love of good food and a curiosity for new experiences based on their travels. Experiencing these oddities of ethnic cuisines was a way to further understand the roots of a culture and how that culture has evolved. Vietnamese immigrants -- refugees at first -- didn't know what to expect when they settled in various regions around the United States. But they absorbed what they found with humor and curiosity while maintaining pride and integrity in their traditions, and they definitely gave back to the dominant culture.
It's no accident that Vietnamese-Cajun seafood joints have spread from Louisiana to places as far away as San Diego, Atlanta and Denver. A little experimentation, a profound respect for bold flavors and a pioneering spirit have created something new from disparate sources. The French may have placed their stamp on Vietnamese and Cajun cuisines, but Vietnam Bay and other restaurants like it have accomplished something even more delightful by fusing flavors that come alive with many worlds at once, speaking a new language while maintaining authenticity in its truest sense: something genuine and of undisputed origin. That origin is simply the joy of cooking, eating and sharing good food wherever it is found.
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For more from our culinary trek down Federal, check out our entire A Federal Case archive.