Crawfish King: Authentic Vietnamese Cajun, Houston-Style

Not fusion, but a syncretization of spicy seafood with a French influence.

If you refuse to wear vinyl to Crawfish King, at least leave your dry-clean-only clothes at home. Halfway through my second meal at the new Cajun seafood restaurant in the International District, my hands were slicked up to the wrists in a blend of butter, chile pepper, minced garlic, and crustacean juices, and I could only imagine that my glossed-up lips made me look like Lady Gaga had joined the vampire lords in Underworld. I felt a hand on my forearm. The waitress, with a comically tart look on her face, began rolling my shirt cuffs (washable cotton—I wasn't that stupid) above my elbow. Apparently the plastic bib around my neck wasn't covering enough surface, and she was more worried for the future of my wardrobe than I. I paused from biting the claw of a particularly big mudbug to thank her, then put the now-cracked claw up to my lips to suck it like a plastic straw.Crawfish boils are not for the squeamish.There's no time like the present for hitting Crawfish King. May through July is when the Mississippi River delta floods and all the fattest crawfish are easy to catch. But Gulf Coast crawfish season wasn't the only reason I decided to check out Crawfish King. Sure, the three-month-old restaurant may serve Cajun fries, shrimp poboys, jambalaya, and gumbo, but the reason I was curious about the place wasn't because it was authentically Cajun. It's because it's authentically Vietnamese Cajun, Houston-style.The moment I learned that owner James Nguyen and manager Trieu Dinh (of What the Pho! in Bellevue) were Vietnamese-American, I flashed back to a 2002 article written by Robb Walsh, my counterpart at the Houston Press. Walsh had taken a trip to the Hong Kong City Mall, the heart of Houston's Vietnamese neighborhood, where he noticed that four of the food-court restaurants served Cajun food. Their picnic tables were packed with Asian-American families peeling their way through 15 pounds at a time. He started looking into the phenomenon."The Vietnamese came to the Gulf Coast after the [Vietnam] war because they were employed in the seafood industry," Walsh said when I talked to him about Crawfish King last week. After 30 years of living in Cajun country—which stretches far west of New Orleans into Texas—the Vietnamese Gulf Coast residents adopted the cuisine as their own, with only minor adaptations. It's not fusion, Walsh says, but syncretization: "You have two cultures whose cuisines are based on rice, spicy food, seafood, and the French influence. The parallels between Louisiana and Vietnam are mind-boggling." Now Vietnamese Cajun cuisine is spreading beyond Louisiana and Texas to Vietnamese communities thousands of miles away. Such as Seattle's International District.Nguyen and Dinh took over Made in Kitchen, a bistro whose tony take on traditional Vietnamese food carried over into the decor, and revamped it with a completely different version of Vietnamese America today. Now, as Crawfish King, it looks like, well, a deck overlooking the water—wood-plank floors and picnic tables, sky-blue walls, even tiny sand dunes beaching up against the pier struts in the center of the room. Buoys, fishing nets, and a diver caught in one of them drape from the ceiling. It looks as if the owners had stopped off at a tourist stand outside New Orleans and asked for one of everything for the restaurant's walls.The first thing the servers did when we walked in was cover the table in plastic-bottomed butcher paper, anchoring it with rolls of public-toilet brown paper towels. They passed out brochure-sized menus listing poboys (sandwiches with mayo, lettuce, tomato), some fried seafood platters with spicy Cajun fries, and bottled lagers like Bud and Heineken, then referred us to the chalkboard above the cash register for the seafood available. Right now, the prices run $8.99 per pound for crawfish and steamed clams, $9.99 for blue crab, $16.99 for live shrimp, and a few bucks more for king-crab and snow-crab legs."The owner picks up crawfish at the airport every day," our waiter explained while we peered at the chalkboard. "Then it gets cooked in a pot big enough to bathe in." She asked us whether we wanted the seafood coated in the Rajun Cajun (the standard mix of spices and oil) or the Big Easy (add garlic butter). Then she demanded to know whether we were a little crazy, crazy, or extra crazy, pointing to the three heat levels. "You look extra crazy," she said to me."Oh, no, I'm just plain crazy," I said.Next up: bibs, beers, metal wastebaskets, and a six-pack of squeeze bottles and shakers. She deposited lime segments and little plastic tubs of Cajun seasoning, instructing us to squeeze the citrus into the powder. Paper tubs of spice-covered fries and hot wings arrived next, then plastic containers of gumbo with plastic spoons to eat it with. (Tip to the proprietors: Authenticity be damned, Seattle would prefer you use reusable bowls and silverware.)Finally, she lugged over clear plastic bags straining with the weight of dozens of red bodies, corn cobs, and boiled potato halves coated in a rust-colored paste. We rolled down the tops of the bags to get at their contents, releasing an unholy wash of steam scented with cayenne, dried herbs, and garlic. It was time to get greasy.You have two basic approaches to eating your mudbug: suck or peel. I don't have the lung power to vacuum out an entire tail from its exoskeleton, so I grabbed the back fins and slowly wriggled the tail apart from the head. Then I sucked the juice out of the head—one sharp slurp, a few rich drops of spicy juice—and then cracked the exoskeleton by pinching along its length before peeling off the carapace. Dipping the tip of the tail in the red paste, I'd down it in one bite, then lick some of the seasoning paste from my fingers and reach for another one. One of my tablemates took the process a step further, peeling apart the head to pick out the lungs, whose heady aroma was reminiscent of Southeast Asian shrimp paste.When Walsh first wrote about Asian Cajuns, he described making his own remoulade from the condiments to dip his crawfish in. But I ignored the liquid margarine, the hot sauce, the mayo and ketchup, to stick to that simple lime-and-Cajun seasoning dip. To me, that dip is the element that makes Crawfish King's Cajun food so Vietnamese. Much like the lemon–black pepper dip that comes with shaking beef (aka beef luc lac), it's not meant to make the food spicier but to add one more layer of flavor. When you swish your crawfish through the thick red paste and bite in, you get that first shock of acid and pepper, which segues into the garlic, mellowing into the rich crustacean flavor of the meat and juices, followed by the slow but certain flare of cayenne.As for the rest of the fare, well, it's fine enough. The jambalaya's dry—I'd rather the owners replace it with another Houston specialty, crawfish fried rice. The gumbo is made with a deep shellfish stock. It's chunky with still-green okra, good-sized chunks of crab and chicken, and pork sausage, but the stew is based on a too-light roux tasting of flour (it's no competition for the chocolate-brown crab gumbo at King Creole in Madrona). The red-dusted Cajun fries were crisp, the hot wings tender. The steamed clams, drenched in chile butter, melted on the tongue. At the end of round one of our feast, I thought of ordering a platter of fried soft-shelled crab to taste, but the appeal of another couple pounds of crawfish was too strong.Gulf crawfish season only lasts three months of the year. In the off-season, our waitress said, they use farmed crawfish, which are considerably smaller. Perhaps that will be the time to branch out into the Dungeness crab and snow-crab legs—in fact, the shrimp we ordered were just as tender as the crawfish meat, and the shells of the blue crabs were rimmed with spicy salt and lined with sweet white flesh. But right now it's May, and some of the crawfish are as long as my hand.The only thing that could improve on 10 pounds of crazy-hot, butter-drenched, Vietnamese Cajun, Big-Easy-spice-caked, spring-fattened mudbugs is if the cooks used freshly chopped garlic in the garlic butter instead of canned. That, and if they capped the meal with a round of Wet-Naps and detergent wipes for dessert.jkauffman@seattleweekly.comPRICE CHECK Bowl of gumbo: $7.99Crawfish: $8.99/pound Steamed clams: $8.99/pound Blue crab: $9.99/pound Shrimp poboy: $8.99 Cajun fries: $1.99 Extra corn: $.50

 
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