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A tall Air Force officer walks into the new and low-ceilinged Cajun Experience restaurant in Dupont Circle, to pick up a carry-out order. He asks owner Bryan Crosswhite, who is situated on a bar stool, chatting and fiddling around with a broken door handle, if he knows of a dish called “gumbo-laya,” an admittedly fusion-y concoction he liked to order from a Cajun restaurant in California.
“Never heard of it,” says Crosswhite, a native of Lafayette, La., telling the customer how he tries to stay true to the fundamentals of Cajun cooking. An economist who moved to the D.C. area in 2007, Crosswhite is in the middle of explaining the authenticity of his restaurant’s Cajun cuisine, showing me the custom of enjoying a bowl of chicken and sausage gumbo with a spoonful of potato salad in the center.
America, you see, has “bastardized gumbo,” where diners have come to expect a thicker, fricassée-like consistency, Crosswhite says. “It has to be muddy, watery gumbo…. If it’s real, it’s gonna look like bayou water.”
With a handful of new Louisiana-oriented restaurants and eateries opening in Arlington and the District in recent months, it’s gotten a bit confusing to figure out what’s exactly Cajun, what’s Creole, what’s “real,” what’s not, and who’s mixing Louisiana’s various traditions together.
Should D.C. diners, who are largely clueless about these differences, care about intra-Louisiana culinary divisions? To Crosswhite, who is quick to tout his Cajun heritage through eight generations in the Atchafalaya Basin—with ties to the Guillot and Darbonne families, to be exact—they should.
“In Louisiana, we are picky,” he says. And the newcomer to D.C.’s restaurant scene, with two Virginia locations in Leesburg and Purcellsville under his belt, is not shy about pointing out that the other new entrants in D.C.’s Louisiana-dining market lack, well, Louisiana roots. At least most of them. (Bayou Bakery’s David Guas, formerly Acadiana’s pastry chef, grew up in New Orleans and spent many summers in Cajun country at his aunt’s house in Abbeville, “about 20 minutes away from where Bryan was born.”)
The authenticity game can get tricky.
“They have no credibility in the market,” Crosswhite says of Hot N Juicy Crawfish, which opened up in Woodley Park in January. Hot N Juicy’s first (and only other) location, in Las Vegas, was recently featured in the Travel Channel’s Man vs. Food show.
The first Hot N Juicy opened in Las Vegas’s west side Chinatown in 2007. The Woodley Park location is co-owned by Rita Nguyen, whose brother, Tim, started the Las Vegas restaurant with wife. The Nguyens are a Vietnamese family from Texas; Rita says they hope to expand the restaurants nationally.
Hot N Juicy opened its second restaurant in D.C., she says, because Washington has always been a city she’s loved (Sarasota, Fla., another of her favorite spots, might be a future location).
There was also, naturally, a business opportunity here. For starters, there aren’t a whole lot of places in D.C. where you can put on a bib, suck out the contents of a crawfish head, and peel shrimp on easily replaceable tablecoverings. Certainly not at white table-clothed Acadiana, which opened in 2005 on Mount Vernon Square.
“We wanted to bring something new… something fun, young,” Nguyen says.
From the bubbly Katy Perry songs blaring from the sound system to the neon beer signs on the walls, you definitely get that feeling. It’s a place for groups to feast on spicy seafood, nosh on fried oysters, and drink beer.
“We’re definitely not Creole,” Nguyen says. Hot N Juicy keeps the menu pretty simple. Crawfish and shrimp come seasoned in 1-pound plastic bags. You choose the spice level—a waitress warns new customers that Hot and Spicy takes its name seriously—and a type of seasoning.
The garlic butter option is no joke—there’s plenty of finely chopped garlic, which might make your pores quite fragrant the day after. There’s also the special Hot N Juicy seasoning, which Ngyuen says has “an Asian twist” and “a lot of love.” She declines to disclose the recipe, but says the night before, she was in the lower-level kitchen until 4 a.m. making it and the other seasonings, including what Nguyen says is a more traditional Louisiana Cajun seasoning.
“It’s all about the spicy,” she says.
That Cajun description is what peeves Crosswhite, along with topping boiled seafood in sauce, a Cajun no-no. Then there are, more broadly, the non-Louisianans who have muddled, and disrespected, traditional Cajun cooking, he says. They’ve “bastardized our cuisine for years. And that starts with Emeril Lagasse,” the famed television chef who Crosswhite notes is just “a guy from Massachusetts.”
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Talk to Crosswhite for just a bit, and it’s clear he thinksLouisiana’s culinary traditions have been overthought by tastemakers from outside his home state. “Cajun food is not supposed to be fancy,” he says, referring to Acadiana, helmed by chef Jeff Tunks, a partner in the Passion Hospitality Group, which also includes TenPenh, DC Coast, and Ceiba.
At Acadiana, Tunks says, “we didn’t want to be Cajun, we didn’t want to be Creole. We wanted to be a Louisiana restaurant.” And since Acadiana caters to a more buttoned-up crowd, he couldn’t have bibs be part of the equation. “We wanted to give that same flavor profile, just without the muss and fuss.”
Guas says part of the beauty of cooking is the ability to adapt and present culinary traditions. But he admits that in Louisiana, “it’s complicated, it’s sensitive.”
On a larger scale, Crosswhite, Guas, Tunks, and their colleagues in the Louisiana cooking world have larger identity issue to deal with: demystifying the common thought that all Louisiana cooking is spicy. Guas says Louisiana cooking should be about the flavor, not the spice level. And if you can’t taste Louisiana cooking’s “holy trinity” of ingredients—green pepper, onion, and celery—you’re off track.
Cajun does not mean New Orleans cuisine, which has been heavily influenced by Creole cooking traditions from Europe, the Caribbean, and Africa. The Acadians from France’s former Canadian territories resettled in Bayou country following the French and Indian War, bringing bits of provincial French food culture with them. The mish-mash has always made identity politics complicated, especially when cooking traditions are added to the mix.
Guas says he learned to cook from his aunt in Abbeville. But “I don’t call myself a Cajun,” he says. “I would never pigeonhole myself… I don’t talk about that to give me clout. I am who I am, I was born where I was born. Do I think I’m honoring a culture I was raised in? You’re damn right.”
Though he is very proud of his roots in Acadiana, “I’m not anti-New Orleans,” Crosswhite stresses, admitting that his own white tablecloths and brick back patio might remind some of “New Orleans 1940s.” The Cajun Experience also offers a Crescent City classic: beignets, made according to the original Café Du Monde recipe. (Why tinker with tradition, Crosswhite says.)
Regardless of Crosswhite’s culinary roots, the boundaries of his restaurants are poised to expand. A Capitol Hill location is in the works, he says. After that? Cajun Experiences in Europe and the Middle East may come, too.
Crosswhite says he’s cooked in Egypt for private parties to rave reviews. He plans to expand there “as soon as we have a new government in Egypt.”
But first, Crosswhite needs to prove Cajun Experience as a restaurant in Washington. Three months after opening, it’s probably too early to predict where it will land, though there’s intriguing promise. On my visits, dishes have been good, but markedly uneven. (Watch the salt on the collard greens with those otherwise nice, slightly sweet hushpuppies!) Service has ranged from attentive and informative to, at times, slightly schizophrenic. All of this is to be expected of any new restaurant starting out.
Generally, Cajun Experience has a nice vibe going for it, below sidewalk level, tucked inside a cozy 18th Street NW rowhouse space down the block from the hoopla atmosphere at Lauriol Plaza. Crosswhite says to cement his Cajun authenticity in D.C., he’s planning food tastings and educational events.
In the near term, there are Saturday all-you-can-eat crawfish specials for $35 per person. This summer, expect similar specials on Maryland crabs—not steamed, but boiled Cajun style, and likely alongside the crawfish.
Though the Cajun Experience gets its oysters from local Chesapeake waters, Crosswhite says the shrimp are from the Gulf and crawfish are regularly shipped in, 2,000 to 3,000 pounds at a time from the heart of Cajun country.
Cheaper Chinese crawfish have crippled the Louisiana crawfish industry, he says: “Our restaurants don’t serve any Chinese crawfish.” If they did, “my momma would slap me in the face and my father would rise from the dead and kick me in the butt.”
Nguyen, meanwhile, says Hot N Juicy gets its shrimp from Ecuador. The restaurant’s crawfish is sourced “in Louisiana,” though she doesn’t say where because of competitive reasons.
Guas says he’s “proud” that his crawfish comes from Houma, La.
While Crosswhite may be fussy about authenticity, the recent expansion of Louisiana dining in D.C. has been nice. Food has always been one of the state’s best cultural ambassadors, something that any Louisianan living locally knows well. Crosswhite says Louisiana expats have come into his restaurants, “they sit down, they eat the food, and they say ‘I’m home.’”
Because that’s where the true authenticity is, anyway. “People in the rest of world eat to live,” Crosswhite says. “We live to eat. That’s what separates us.”
Photos by Darrow Montgomery
Cajun Experience, 1825 18th St. NW, (202) 670-4416
Hot N Juicy Crawfish, 2651 Connecticut Ave. NW, (202) 299-9448
Acadiana, 901 New York Ave. NW, (202) 408-8848
Bayou Bakery, 1515 N. Courthouse Road, Arlington (703) 243-2410