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).
Cajun Craven, 12141 Beamer Road
Cajun Crawfish No. 1, 13480 Veterans Memorial Drive
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
FRSH Seafood Market
GiAu Bar 'n Bites
Jolynn's Crawfish, 10834 Beechnut Street
LA Crawfish, many locations
Mo City Crawfish (Missouri City)
Nick's Crawfish Bar
Reel Seafood & Wings
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 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.