How Houston’s Viet-Cajun Crawfish Became Everyone’s Bucket-List Dish
The love child of two coastal communities has created the biggest thing to happen in Gulf Coast dining—and now you can make it at home.
"I was at a Cajun-style boil house the other day, and when I took a bite of their crawfish I just shook my head," says Underbelly chef Chris Shepherd. "I turned to all my friends at the table and said ‘Why didn't we just go to Crawfish & Noodles?'"
Related: Viet-Cajun Crawfish Boil Menu
That's a common sentiment around Texas's Bayou City these days. When it comes to peak crawfish season, you want to be eating Viet-Cajun. Whether it's at LA Crawfish, Cajun Kitchen (featured on PBS's Mind of a Chef), or Shepherd's favorite, Crawfish & Noodles, Viet-style boils are the preferred way to slurp down mudbugs in Houston.
Unlike its traditional Cajun counterpart, Viet-style crawfish are defined by the spices and herbs added after the actual boil. Each restaurant has its own secret recipe—for example, Crawfish & Noodles' chef/owner Trong Nguyen closely guarded spice concoction, blended in a concrete mixer, is rumored to have over 10 ingredients—but typically the cooked crustaceans are tossed in melted butter, gobs of garlic, cayenne, and Southeast Asian ingredients such as lemongrass and ginger.
A cross-cultural merger of two coastal communities, this almost-two-decade-old trend can be traced back to the collapse of Saigon in 1975. Since then, Houston has become home to the third-largest Vietnamese population in the United States. Now, the culinary ingenuity that began on Bellaire Boulevard in Houston's Asiatown district in the early 2000s has expanded across the city and into the suburbs.
What barbecue is to Central Texas, Viet-Cajun cuisine (crab and shrimp are also prone to makeovers) is to Houston. It's become destination dining, as evidenced by David Chang's gushing tribute on Netflix's Ugly Delicious. Or the countless high-profile chefs who visit Space City to experience the trend—typically with Shepherd acting as culinary ambassador. And most importantly, the residents of this Gulf Coast community, now recognized as the most diverse in the country.
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"Just walk in to the dining room on a Saturday afternoon, at one of these restaurants and you really get a sense of the city," says Shepherd. "It's buzzing, the place is packed, and you can see all cultures. All people. And they're all dining under the same roof. It's become so much more than crawfish for the Vietnamese population. It's a snapshot of Houston."