Among the tenants of 5000 Buford Highway, a sprawling strip mall just north of Chamblee Tucker Road, there is a grocery store with notable selections of Southeast Asian produce and Latin American snacks. There is a homey Korean joint that makes a mean budae jjigae, the Spam- and hot dog-laden stew influenced by the tastes of American GIs stationed on the Korean Peninsula. There is a hit Malaysian restaurant that also happens to serve top-notch Chinese-style dim sum.
So, it seems only fitting that this relatively new epicenter of diverse culinary activity also includes Kajun Crab, a Vietnamese pho and boiled seafood joint that, in name and style, borrows liberally from the Acadian cooking traditions in Louisiana.
Atlanta’s Vietnamese community has long produced some of the best Cajun food in this city. More than a few food writers, myself included, have noted the way the complementary cultures and environments of Vietnam and Louisiana, both former French colonies, are ideal culinary partners. In Atlanta, this collision of cuisines, most notably demonstrated by the much-lauded Crawfish Shack, tends to emphasize Cajun style with Vietnamese touches. Despite the name, Kajun Crab is first and foremost a Vietnamese restaurant with occasional Acadian flourishes.
Since Kajun Crab opened at the beginning of this year, the menu has gone through several revisions. When I visited months ago, I was presented with no fewer than three different laminated sheets and a confusing, overwhelming set of options. On my most recent visits, that selection has been narrowed to one, double-sided laminated sheet. On one side are mostly familiar Vietnamese classics — pho, com, and vermicelli bowls. The other side lists a selection of boiled seafood and sides.
You could do worse than to begin with a basket of rocket shrimp. This is a classic Vietnamese appetizer: medium-sized shrimp rolled up in an egg wrapper with a strip of scallion stuffed inside and fried to a golden brown crisp. They’re an addictive, crunchy way to begin a meal, and the portion is large. It’s not a bad idea to bring a crowd to share this dish, as well as many of the others on Kajun Crab’s menu, so that you might try a few things without filling up before the main event.
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Dining solo, though, you’ll be just fine with a bowl of pho. The broth is a classic, redolent with the familiar blend of aromatic spice that makes pho such a satisfying dish. I’ve noticed the accouterments — Thai basil, culantro, bean sprouts, jalapeno, lime — that accompany every bowl are distinctly fresh and fairly generous.
You may be tempted, as I was, to try the less common option of seafood noodle soup. This dish very much resembles a bowl of pho when it arrives at the table. Rice noodles swim in a big bowl of hot broth topped with shrimp, pale white fish balls and imitation crab. On first taste of the clear broth, I was little underwhelmed by the salty, uncomplicated, fishy flavor. After folding in the basil, culantro, jalapeno, and a big squeeze of lime juice, though, I was impressed with the way the broth blossomed into a layered, clean evocation of those herby flavors. The effect was subtle but pleasantly light.
I’ve had a little less success exploring some of the other more uncommon dishes on offer. I could not help but be curious about a dish called Cajun Coconut Snail, a heaping rich bowl of herbal lemongrass curry studded with beautiful, small snail shells the size of river stones. The trouble is that the snails are tiny and cooked to the point that they tend to stay stuck deep inside their shells. Retrieving them with a fork is impossible; a strong slurping action is required to remove them. Perhaps I’m spoiled by the fat escargot I’ve been served at French restaurants, which tend to slip from their shells like a foot from a slipper. Even so, the few bits of snail meat I was able to retrieve were not worth the trouble.
These missteps are forgivable, at least in my estimation, because of the main event. That is, namely, the boiled seafood. The menu offers varying combinations of clams, mussels, crawfish, shrimp, king crab legs, lobster tails, and so forth, as well as a couple of choices of sauce and heat. A 3-pound combination of crawfish, mussels and shrimp is more than enough for two, laden as it is with corn cobs, red potatoes and smoked sausage.
My favorite way to order this is with the spicy Kajun House Mix, a powerful buttery, lightly sweet sauce studded with a big handful of minced garlic and slow-burning cayenne heat. The combination arrives in a plastic-lined pot accompanied by plastic gloves and an empty bowl for discarding shells. It’s a messy, fun feast, perfect for slowly peeling away an afternoon with friends.
What I like to order on the side with this feast is a plate of Cajun stir-fry corn. It’s a greasy, spicy-sweet dish loaded with shallots and minced sausage and plenty of spices that belongs equally to Vietnamese cooks, who know it as bap xao, and Cajun ones, who call it maque choux. Here on Buford Highway, where everything seems to be from somewhere else, it is perfectly at home.
11 a.m.-10 p.m. Sundays-Thursdays; 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays. 5000 Buford Highway, Chamblee. 678-580-0294, Facebook: Kajun Crab Pho and Seafood.
Recommended dishes: Boiled seafood, rocket shrimp, Cajun stir-fry corn, pho