Louisianans are busily planning traditional crawfish boils to mark the NOLA-hosted Super Bowl and Mardi Gras next month, but Seattle eaters who want to enjoy their February mudbugs in uniquely Pacific Northwest fashion can feast on spicy crawfish tail and andouille pho at Federal Way's new Crazy Pho Cajun.
"Nobody has it but us," staffer Frankie Dang says of the Cajun-seasoned Vietnamese soup. "We're doing the fusion to give people variety."
While Viet-Cajun crawfish joints are hugely popular in cities with large Vietnamese communities, crawfish pho remains a rarity. Owner Anthony Nguyen, who first originated the concept at the now-closed Hot Boiled in Austin, Tex., says the region's overwhelming affection for pho makes the preparation a good fit for Seattle.
"People there eat crawfish," Nguyen says of the customers he encountered in Texas. "People here eat pho."
Cajun pho is built around a chicken broth, and each bowl is individually seasoned. "So the cooking style's a little bit different," Nguyen says, referring to the tradition of simmering pho overnight, allowing the soup to absorb its component herbs and aromatics.
A crawfish joint in Houston's 99 Ranch Market drops whole crawfish in its pho - "it was bound to happen sooner or later as the Vietnamese crawfish genre works through its classic phase and enters the baroque," the Houston Chronicle's Alison Cook remarked in a brief 2012 write-up - but Crazy Pho Cajun sticks with bits of shelled crawfish meat, shrimp and andouille sausage, sourced from the Gulf Coast.
"A lot of people come in here and try it and it becomes their favorite pho," Dang says.
In addition to crawfish pho and boiled crawfish, Crazy Pho Cajun serves Cajun bun, crawfish fried rice, gumbo, po' boys and etouffee. But pho is Nguyen's birthright: His mother years ago opened the first Pho Bac on 12th Avenue South. She and her sister later expanded beyond Little Saigon, opening a Pho Bac near the Greyhound station and another in Tacoma. They've since retired, leaving the pho legacy to their children.
"We're the next generation," says Nguyen, who grew up working in his family's restaurants, but didn't own his own pho joint until he moved to Texas. He moved back home last year after a three-year stint in Austin, opening Crazy Pho Cajun in October. The well-scrubbed strip mall restaurant has a mild party vibe, with wall space devoted to beer banners and flat-screen TVs.
"My cousins, they're sticking more to their roots," Nguyen says. "I'm the only one that's ventured out and done something different."