Neon signs hanging in the graffiti-tagged windows promise “Po-Boys,” “Jambalaya,” “HOT BOUDIN,” and “Yaka Mein.” One handwritten sign reads, “Now serving Pho.” I'm interested in all of that, but I'm here for the bourbon chicken. Though I haven't found many restaurants in New Orleans serving bourbon chicken, I am chasing a legend based on a theory that the teriyaki-style dish was named after nearby Bourbon Street, and the version served at Today's Cajun Seafood is supposed to be very good.
Inside, I'm standing at the back of a line that snakes around the bare dining room (emptied of its chairs and tables by the pandemic), awash in the aroma of fried seafood. I survey the menu, which reads like a beautiful mash-up of cultures: shrimp and sausage gumbo, smothered pork chops, boiled crawfish, General Tso's chicken, baked spaghetti, bourbon chicken.
I struggle to order. Even though I'm here for one thing, I'm surprised by the vastly different options laid out before me. I shouldn't be, though. New Orleans is known for its modernized takes on blended cuisines—its culinary influences range from the home cooking of the descendants of French settlers in rural Louisiana to the foods of enslaved West Africans, Vietnamese refugees, Spanish and Chinese immigrants, and Native Americans. I find myself in a restaurant that somehow serves all these things and none of them at the same time. I'm confused and delighted.
A small-statured woman with smiling eyes finally interrupts my reverie, meeting my indecision with patience. “You get two sides,” says Huong Vu Nguyen (Rose), who with her husband Hao (Howie) owns and operates Today's Cajun Seafood. “Everyone likes the broccoli and cheese, the shrimp pasta, and the gumbo, but take your time. They're my recipes; everything is good.” I order way more food than I can possibly eat and learn that Rose was right: Everything on the menu is good.
Howie refers to both himself and Rose as “boat people,” the name given to the nearly 800,000 refugees who fled Vietnam from the period after the war to 1995. In the United States, Howie studied psychology, worked on an offshore oil rig, and then taught ESL (English as a second language) in New Orleans public schools. Rose worked for years in her brother's restaurant, China Ruby, in St. Bernard Parish.
Following Hurricane Katrina, the couple lived in Houston for a year with their children. They returned to their neighborhood in New Orleans East and joined the rebuilding effort. In 2007, Howie, Rose, and Rose's brother opened Today's Cajun Seafood with a diverse menu, building a loyal clientele of regulars. When asked why his restaurant sells bourbon chicken, Howie answered pragmatically, “It's Bourbon Street. People like it.”
Over the past year, Howie and Rose have been weathering another storm: the pandemic. Like so many other restaurant owners, they closed for a time at the onset of the shutdown. They reopened with some assistance from their landlord, activated by their persevering spirit. As with each of their past hardships, they respond with grace, kindness, warmth, and an uncommon understanding of the power of hospitality. By welcoming every guest as if into their own home and overfilling plates with every kind of comfort food, Howie and Rose are making life a little easier for their community.