Distance: 25 miles
Driving time: 30 minutes
Pity the poor fools who pack into a buddy's car at 6 a.m. to try and beat the crowds to Kreuz and Smitty's in Lockhart, to Luling City Market, to the legendary line at Franklin's in Austin that is now so ingrained in our cultural zeitgeist that the New York Times just wrote a curiously anthropological piece on the phenomenon, thus crushing all remaining cool from the experience.
The barbecue pilgrimage has had its day. It's time for the crawfish crawl to enjoy its long-awaited moment in the sun.
Further confirming crawfish as the new king of Texas cuisine is Beyoncé's newest music video for "Formation," in which the Houston native slips in a shot of the mudbugs being eaten out of a simple paper boat—a nod to her Best Coast heritage that blends Alabama, Louisiana and Creole roots with her Bayou City upbringing. So take a note from Bey's book and hit the road this weekend for some authentic Cajun-style crawfish (no need to drop a bottle of hot sauce in your bag, though—these bugs will be hot enough).
If Lockhart is a meat mecca, with its competing smoke shacks drawing tourists all weekend long, Crosby is the crawfish capital of the area. (Side note: If you're in the market for the Viet-Cajun style of crawfish born in Houston, Chinatown is your ground zero.) Here, just 30 miles northeast of Houston off Highway 90, you'll find three excellent crawfish joints all within spitting distance of each other.
John E's Restaurant was formerly known as the Crawfish Hut, and that's still what you'll hear old-timers calling the place. Owner John Eric Thomas also runs two other locations in Louisiana, which means he's always busy pulling in fresh bugs from across state lines. John E's offers three different boil options, from a "medium" (its most popular) to a "hot and spicy" that is guaranteed to make you sweat.
If you're just passing through, you can pick up 10-pound sacks ($59.99) at the drive-through, but John E's otherwise only offers 4-pound servings ($24.99) if you're dining in. Use the extra stomach room for their signature Cajun eggrolls stuffed with fresh boudin.
You can't miss the neon sign atop Crawfish Shack, the same bright red hue as their boiled bugs. Inside, a no-frills menu offers crawfish with four boil options from mild to "mo spicy" and servings as little as two pounds ($6.95/lb.) or as large as 100 ($5.95/lb.).
The most popular option is the Shack Combo: two pounds of boiled crawfish and one pound of boiled shrimp with corn and potatoes for $24.95. Owners Dan and Jennifer Meaux also sell live Louisiana crawfish by the sack to boil at home and, like the other joints listed here, only sell them in season.
If you've got the kids in tow, there's no better spot to park the family than at Crawfish Kings. Here along FM 2100, owner John McLendon, Jr. offers a two-acre park-like setting complete with bouncy slide and children's menu, but this road trip-worthy restaurant is notable for something more crucial to crawfish connoisseurs: provenance.
McLendon and his partners also own 650 acres of crawfish ponds in Gueydan, Louisiana, where the little mudbugs grow up surrounded by rice paddies and organic grass fields (and yes, live ones are for sale). You'll also find a more unusual dry-spice option for the crawfish ($6.95/lb.) in addition to house favorite boil "Make Me Cry," which we're sure Beyoncé would approve of: it comes on a mound of white rice, with plenty of hot sauce on top.