Thanks to our enterprising Vietnamese restaurateurs, Houston has become the best place in the country to sample the phenomenon called Viet-Cajun crawfish. The trend took root locally in the early 2000s when a place called Cajun Corner, located just down Beamer Rd. from the original Pho Binh trailer in Southbelt, started selling garlic butter crawfish. Soon, Viet-Cajun joints were popping up all over the city, each selling its own variations, complete with secret recipes and fancy ingredients like French butter.
What makes a Viet-style boil? Unlike Cajun-style crawfish, Vietnamese-style boils are often minimally seasoned, with spices and other accoutrements added after the bugs come out of the water. These spices and seasonings include traditional ingredients like cayenne pepper and garlic, but also Southeast Asian herbs such as lemongrass, ginger and Thai basil. Also unlike their Cajun counterparts, Viet-style crawfish are typically tossed with butter after cooking, then served with even more butter as a dipping sauce.
Though Houston’s Little Saigon area west of Beltway 8 on Bellaire Boulevard still has the strongest concentration of these Asian-Cajun spots, these days you’ll find them everywhere from Katy to Pearland. Here are 10 of Houston’s best.
BYOB: Yes (liquor and wine only; serves beer)
At his café inside Hong Kong City Mall IV, owner Kiet Duong uses real butter as well as sugar, which makes his crawfish sweeter and, let’s be honest, more addictive. The flavors—Original Cajun, Kickin’ Cajun, Garlic Butter, Lemon Pepper, Thai Basil and The Mix, a blend of garlic butter and lemon pepper—appeal to a range of palates. Duong says that customers like to customize their flavors, with Garlic Butter/Thai Basil now one of the most popular blended orders.
BYOB: Yes (also serves beer, wine and spirits)
Featured everywhere from the Washington Post to PBS’s Mind of a Chef series, the crawfish here are cooked in a wok after being boiled in Cajun seasoning, in much the same way the Chinese prepare crab and lobster, for extra oomph. The Kitchen Special, tossed with green onion, garlic, lemons, orange, butter and garlic, is sweet, savory, tangy and wholly original, while the Thai Basil flavor conjures the streets of Bangkok.
BYOB: No (beer and wine served)
This is the kind of mom-and-pop place that’s a joy to stumble upon. The owner, Henry Tran, is a former shrimper and fisherman from Port Arthur who started doing boils for family and friends out of a trailer in Waller in the late ’80s and early ’90s. The trailer grew so popular, he eventually opened his own restaurant, whose new location on Beamer Road offers two crawfish flavors: traditional Cajun and a sweet-and-sour garlic glaze called Craven. Tran still drives down to Louisiana himself to pick out his crawfish, so it’s of impeccable quality and freshness.
BYOB: No (beer and daiquiris served)
Step into Lisa Carnley’s east downtown domain and feel transported to New Orleans. Her regulars, who follow her on social media religiously, come in as much for her hospitality as her menu. While much of her food is traditionally Cajun, Carnley—who is of Vietnamese descent and resettled in Houston after Hurricane Katrina—also offers a few Asian-esque crawfish flavors: garlicky lemon (our favorite), Hot Lips (super-spicy garlicky lemon), Krazie Asian (soy and basil), and Big Lips (buyer beware, this one’s really hot).
BYOB: Yes (wine only; serves beer)
If this legendary spot decided to change its name to The King of Garlic Butter Crawfish, it wouldn’t be far off the mark. Chef/owner Trong Nguyen’s garlic butter mix is a thing of beauty through and through. And no wonder: “I use French butter,” Nguyen says of his secret sauce, which was the only flavor on offer until recently, when he introduced a Ginger-Grass boil (an herbal flavor with ginger and lemongrass notes) on a recent episode of the Travel Channel’s Bizarre Foods Delicious Destinations. But it’s the garlic butter that’s the stuff of mudbug dreams. Just choose the spice level and enjoy.
The first thing you’ll notice here are the colorful plastic trash bins at the end of every table. “We give you an apron, and a wet nap, and when you’re done, we just wrap everything up and throw it away,” says Lan Dang, whose family has owned the place since 2005, although it’s moved locations three times and only operates from November to July. What keeps the crowds coming back are the succulent, deeply flavored, made-to-order mudbugs tossed with garlic butter, lemon pepper, or both. Each table sports a small lazy Susan filled with condiments for guests to make their own dipping sauce.
BYOB: Yes (wine only; beer served)
Though the owners are Chinese-Vietnamese by descent, one of their Thai relatives is the lead cook, so this is one of the only spots in town where you can get mudbugs with a side of garlic softshell crab, pad Thai, basil frog legs or steamed green mussels. Get your boiled-to-order crawdads with Garlic Butter, Lemon Pepper, Ragin’ Cajun, or the 88 Special, a mix of the other three flavors. If they’re too spicy, get a house-made Thai iced tea to cool the burn.
BYOB: No (beer and wine served)
The popular House Special flavor—a blend of garlic, butter and myriad other spices—is far less sweet than anything you’ll find in the predominantly Vietnamese area on or around Bellaire Boulevard. And while the crawdads are delicious, they’re not always the main event. Owner James Duong says that their Hungry Home Platter—a mouthwatering mix of king crab, blue crab, snow crab, sausage, Gulf shrimp, crawfish, corn and potatoes for about $54 (a steal)—is a best-seller.
BYOB: Yes (beer served)
What started out as a small stand inside 99 Ranch Market in Memorial has expanded to include 13 franchised locations, with nine spread from Katy to Willowbrook. It’s a counter-service model, so you’ll see customers park themselves at a table with a case of beer and go to town devouring flavors including Garlic Butter, Hot & Sour and House Cajun (the best) with dips they customize themselves. The Asian-fusion menu is also quite extensive, with interesting items like the crawfish pho and empanadas. Because it’s a franchise, quality varies from location to location.
BYOB: No (beer and sake served)
This is one of the only places in town to offer a crawfish happy hour every day (from open to 7 p.m.; during past seasons, the price has dropped to $4.99/pound). The flavors here—garlic butter and Wild Cajun—are less buttery and sweet than other places, something that owner Lee Ngo says he was aiming for, because too much butter makes you want to eat less. And, frankly, since some joints tend to go way overboard with the stuff, we can’t disagree with his methods.