If you’re drawing a blank on the concept of Vietnamese-Cajun cuisine, let me fill it in for you a little. A few years ago (as reported by, among others, the New York Times) a uniquely American type of restaurant started popping up throughout the South & along the Eastern seaboard. Based on the “boiling points,” or crawfish shacks, of Louisiana, these rustic joints shared one unexpected feature: ownership by the sons & daughters of postwar immigrants from Vietnam, who were incorporating ingredients from the homeland into the standard Gulf Coast repertoire.
Here in Denver, the very arrival of The Red Claw a year ago this month marked a simultaneous departure—namely from owner Danny Duong’s pho-focused neighbors on Federal. Serving not a drop of beef-noodle soup, The Red Claw looks every inch the classic boiling point instead, from its modest dockside motif to the tables sheathed in plastic & littered with the tin pails, crawdad tails, & chicken bones of shellfish boils & wing platters as they’re systematically dismantled by diners with gung-ho grins & sticky fingers.
But all isn’t quite as it first seems. Despite the physical resemblance they bear to their Cajun Country counterparts, these specialties are as likely to smack of tamarind, sesame, and ginger as butter & Tabasco. In fact, the wings doused in house fish sauce are among my pet picks: not breaded but nonetheless fried to a glistening golden crisp, they’re smoky, spicy, sweet, & funky all at once.
Meanwhile, much of the rest of the menu falls even more firmly on the left side of the Vietnamese-Cajun hyphen—offering a whole new perspective on bar snacks, or mon nhau (“drinking food”), as one whole section of the menu is labeled. Here you’ll find snails steamed with lemongrass and pork-stuffed squid as well as fiery stirfries, accompanied by warm baguettes for scooping up every last morsel. Try the de xao lan—
generous chunks of goat meat in a dark, coriander-redolent curry with chilies, peanuts, lemongrass, & mint—or the lighter, brighter, more coconutty ech xao lan,
heaped with plump, tender frog’s legs along with sliced peppers & onions. (Don’t miss the papaya jerky salad, either.)
If only the drinks lived up to the food they accompany: to round out the small selection of mass-produced wine & beer as well as dubious daiquiris, I’d love to see some ruou (Vietnamese rice liquor). Then again, given the sheer amount of booze you have to knock back to subdue the high spice of your meal, maybe cheap bottles of low-alcohol industrial lager are all for the best.