How Viet-Cajun Crawfish Became An Important Dish In Houston

When one thinks of the grand melting pots of the U.S., New York City and Los Angeles come to mind. But on the Texas Gulf Coast, another rich melting pot of cuisines and cultures can be found in the sprawling city of Houston. As one of the most diverse cities in the country, its food offers an epic choice of tastes and textures. 

One culture that has made its indelible mark on the city's cuisine is the Vietnamese population. Arriving in waves in the 1970s following the Vietnam War, many Vietnamese people settled in Houston as its climate and geography mirrored the fishing communities they had once called home. According to a Pew Research study, Houston has the second-largest Vietnamese-American population in America, tied with San Jose and surpassed only by L.A. For more than 50 years, Houston-based Vietnamese Americans have mingled their cooking traditions with the Bayou City's famous seafood, including the royally red crawfish.  

This has led to a beloved fusion cuisine, Viet-Cajun, and a dish that has come to define the cultural heart of Houston's diverse cuisine: Viet-Cajun crawfish. A uniquely seasoned take on the Gulf Coast classic, Viet-Cajun crawfish has traveled from the intimate home parties of Vietnamese Americans to their hip Houston restaurants where the public at large can get a taste of this delicious seafood. So where did it all start?

How Viet-Cajun Crawfish came to be

Before we dive into the famous Viet-Cajun crawfish, let's look at its fusion cuisine namesake. The Vietnamese and Cajun flavors seemed destined for each other, as both received significant input from French cuisine and draw focus on the region's seafood. In addition to that, the Vietnamese immigrants found much in common between the casual Cajun seafood boil eateries and the outdoor stall markets of home. From there, it seemed only natural that the Vietnamese chefs would soon be incorporating their own takes on the top seafood boil in the south: crawfish.

Viet-Cajun crawfish first made its debut not in the restaurants of Houston but in the backyard barbecues and neighborhood block parties of the American Vietnamese. As described in an article by Dan Dao for Southern Living, an annual Viet-Cajun crawfish boil is a giant gathering of family and friends, where children run about, and adults tend to over 70 pounds of epically seasoned crawfish. From these homespun roots, Viet-Cajun crawfish made its way to the restaurants of Houston, first debuting at restaurants like Viet-Cajun restaurants like the Boiling Crab, Cajun Corner, and Crawfish and Beignets in the mid-2000s. One of the earliest mentions of the trend making its way to the Houston restaurant circuit is a 2002 article in the Houston Press, noting the spicy crawfish at Cajun Corner being a local favorite. By the 2010s, Viet-Cajun crawfish had become a celebrated staple of Bayou City's seafood fare. 

What sets Viet-cajun crawfish apart

The defining characteristic of this delicious cultural crossover is what's known as the double-seasoning method. How does one double-season crawfish? First, you boil the mudbugs with a hefty dose of seasoning, then, after cooking, you cool them slightly before re-coating them again with divinely seasoned garlic butter. Behind this method is the idea that you're seasoning the crawfish inside and out, so to speak, for twice the flavor.

And when we say "garlic butter," don't be fooled into thinking this entails a simple two-ingredient recipe. This catch-all term can have as many as 15 add-ins, with various spices, herbs, and aromatics working in concert with the pair of namesake ingredients. This is where some classic Vietnamese flavors, like ginger, lemongrass, scallions, and citrus, can find their way into the mix alongside the traditional Cajun spices, like paprika and cayenne powder. Each Viet-Cajun establishment will offer a distinctly different flavor for this garlic butter sauce, with many coming from treasured family recipes, so no two batches of Viet-Cajun crawfish are alike. 

Tossed in with this amazing blend of butter, secret seasoning, and crustaceans are the traditional crawfish boil accompaniments, like corn on the cob, potatoes, and Andouille sausage. It all leads to a taste sensory overload.  

Where to get Viet-cajun crawfish in Houston

If you find yourself in Houston, the best place to start your Viet-Cajun crawfish journey is to head to Little Siagon, a hot spot for Vietnamese restaurants. One classic purveyor of this kind of crawfish boil is Crawfish and Noodles, a Viet-Cajun restaurant that offers its signature seasoning to blue crab, snow crab, and shrimp, as well as the eponymous crawfish. Another popular option is the Houston chain LA Crawfish, which can give you both traditional Cajun and exciting Viet-Cajun flavor options. At Crawfish and Beignets, their Viet-Cajun crawfish (which they call "Krajun") is boiled with scallions and white onions, plus the buyer is allowed to choose their own heat level for the spice. And that's just the tip of the Viet-Cajun iceberg. Other restaurants you can hit for Viet-Cajun crawfish include Crawfish Cafe (which has a surprisingly sweet sugar-and-butter crawfish option), Cajun Craven, and Cajun Kitchen. There are few places you can head to outside of Houston, like in Austin or Dallas, but it's still mostly a Texan affair. 

The best time to grab this delicacy is during the crawfish season (usually January through July), although some restaurants outsource the crawfish from places like Wisconsin in the off-season to make the dish a year-round pleasure. Of course, this is just one delicious facet of the complex Viet-Cajun cuisine, and there's so much to enjoy. Still, Viet-Cajun crawfish is an excellent place to kick off your adventure.