July 31, 2022

Cajun Vietnamese Connection in Houston

Many many years ago, Houston Press restaurant critic, Robb Walsh, had one of those aha moments when he observed how the Vietnamese community had embraced crawfish and how a new way of seasoning it was evolving in Houston. Product of a couple of historical accidents, it became the de facto way to have crawfish in the Vietnamese community here. Starting around 2001.

The traditional crawfish season begins around the time of Lent. Historically, it was a short season but now, crawfish farming can go from January through August. I remember talking once with Chef Trong Nguyen who told me that his place could get crawfish from the west coast at times when it wasn't available in Lousiana...but that was many years ago that I talked with him.

It began with one place, Crawfish and Beignets. The family members had lived in Louisiana and worked in Louisiana style restaurants there. They brought their knowledge for cooking up batches of crawfish with them when they opened in Houston. But they also did something else.

Instead of doing the final pre seasoning, they laid out batches of different sauces and spices so that the customers could build their own specific seasoning recipe at the table, by adding the ingredients they liked to the bag filled with crawfish. The success of Crawfish and Beignets led to copycat restaurants and before long, this "build your own" became the way it was done in Houston.

Through my friendship with Robb, I ended up being on an episode of Bobby Flay's Food Nation, hosting a crawfish boil in my backyard and talking about crawfish and the Louisiana and Vietnam influences on the Houston food scene. I remember asking Bobby beforehand if he wanted to go over the  questions he was going to ask and he said we'd just wing it. So, when he threw out his questions on camera to me, I kind of had to freeform my answers and come up with something that sounded profound and valid! LOL.

"Well, Jay, the Louisiana influence here is really strong, how did that come about?"

(Me, thinking to myself, "Well, Bobby, you didn't want to do another Tex Mex in Houston show so you were looking for some different angle.")

(Me, out loud, "Well, Bobby, the entire Gulf Coast is Oil and Chemical refineries and so many Cajuns came over to work in the industry, and they brought their food recipes with them and Texans took to it really fast.")

And so, here begins a list of where one can find the authentic Cajun Vietnamese experience in Houston, especially during crawfish season (courtesy of recommendations from the Facebook group, Chow Down in Chinatown - Houston).

Angry Crab

Cajun Craven, 12141 Beamer Road

Cajun Crawfish No. 1, 13480 Veterans Memorial Drive

Cajun Fuze

Cajun Kitchen

Crawfish Cafe (garlic butter with Thai basil option is most popular), 11209 Bellaire Blvd.Cajun Kitchen, 6938 Wilcrest Drive (PBS - Mind of a Chef)

Crawfish and Beignet (if still open?)(Maria Tran and family may have started the craze)

Crawfish and Noodles, 11360 Bellaire Blvd. 

Crawfish Pot & Oyster Bar, 9820 Gulf Freeway

Cajun Stop, 2130 Jefferson Street

Drunken Oyster

FRSH Seafood Market

GiAu Bar 'n Bites

Jolynn's Crawfish, 10834 Beechnut Street

Kau Ba

LA Crawfish, many locations

Lotus Seafood

Mike's Seafood

Mo City Crawfish (Missouri City)

Nick's Crawfish Bar

Ocean Crawfish

Reel Seafood & Wings

Saigon House

Tasty Cajun

Wild Cajun, 6533 Wilcrest 

Yummy Seafood and Oyster Bar

88 Boiling Crawfish & Seafood, 1910 Wilcrest

Here is what Robb Walsh wrote about the phenomenon (Houstonia Magazine and Houston Press):

"Back in 2008, I was perplexed by a Los Angeles Times story that claimed the trend began with the Boiling Crab restaurant, which opened in Orange Country in 2004. My earliest memory of Vietnamese crawfish goes all the way back to 2002, when I wrote a story about the Hong Kong City Mall, where, to this day on Saturday afternoons during crawfish season, long tables in the middle of the food court are topped with mountains of crawfish and large groups of mostly Vietnamese diners sit around eating mudbugs, drinking beer, telling jokes, and whiling away the afternoon. 

Two stalls in the food court, one called Crawfish & Beignets, the other Lucky Number 9, sell boiled crawfish by the pound and have condiment stations where diners create elaborate dipping sauces. On my first visit, when I asked for beignets at Crawfish & Beignets, the lady behind the cash register, Louisiana transplant Maria Tran, told me she no longer sold beignets, gumbo, or anything else on the menu, because nobody ordered it. The only food for sale was crawfish by the pound with optional corn and potatoes. 

Those aren’t the only Vietnamese crawfish outlets that were already here in 2002, either. There’s also Cajun Corner in Alief, where the original owner, Quon Nguyen, sold crawfish fried rice and Vietnamese noodle soups along with the boiled crawfish. When Nguyen told me she’d worked in a restaurant in Louisiana before she moved to Houston, I thought she meant she worked in a Vietnamese crawfish restaurant there. Recently, however, I called up a few Louisiana food writers to ask them about it, and they all said they knew about the Vietnamese crawfish restaurants opening around the country but had never seen such a place in the Pelican State. 

“I have been waiting for a decade for the first Vietnamese crawfish restaurant to open in Louisiana,” said New Orleans food writer and historian Rien Fertel, “but it hasn’t happened—as far as I know.” Which means that the Vietnamese crawfish restaurant phenomenon started here in Houston, the city where food trends from all over the planet learn to adapt to American retail reality. When the Louisiana crawfish boil met the Chinatown strip-center restaurant, a new, easily cloned hybrid was born.Vietnamese crawfish is spicier and a lot more flavorful than the Cajun variety. The liquid is usually old-fashioned Cajun boil, with lemongrass stalks and other aromatics added in. But it’s the Vietnamese preoccupation with sauces and flavorings that really distinguishes it. Back in 2002, at Cajun Corner and at the food court of Hong Kong City Mall, I was fascinated to watch Vietnamese customers create their own dips. I’d eaten a lot of crawfish in Louisiana, but I’d never seen anyone dunking them in anything. At the Vietnamese joints, some customers used lime wedges, salt, and pepper mix to make the traditional Vietnamese dip called muoi tieu chanh. But the kids more often used squeeze bottles of ketchup and mayonnaise, Louisiana hot sauce, and ground cayenne to make a hellish sort of cocktail sauce. And that was only the beginning.Vietnamese crawfish continued to evolve. At Hank’s Cajun Crawfish on Bellaire, owner Tony Bu put the crawfish in clear plastic bags and tossed them with hot margarine flavored with lots of dehydrated garlic and additional spices of your choice, a preparation that may have started in California at the Boiling Crab back in 2004. A few years later, Trong Nguyen, owner of Houston’s Crawfish & Noodles, upped the ante by using expensive French butter and fresh garlic. Today, Cajun Kitchen in Bellaire Chinatown is taking the trend to another level by offering crawfish cooked in exotic Thai seasonings.

Houston has become a hotbed for new food trends because the city’s cheap retail space makes it easy for small operators to try something new—and because adventurous diners are eager to devour any sort of deliciousness from any corner of the globe. The wilder, the better. "

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