Boiled crawfish and pho are on the same menu; chopsticks are available at the counter. I’m definitely not in Cajun Country anymore.
Instead of mudbugs smothered in Tony Chachere’s seasoning and served inside divey drinking joints that sell hunting licenses and daiquiris via drive-thru windows—it’s considered an open container in Louisiana when the straw is inside the cup—I’m seeking Vietnamese-style crawfish in West Houston’s 99 Ranch Market, an Asian food-court-meets-grocery-store that was previously a Fiesta Mart. It looks nothing like home, but it sure smells good.
In Cajun Country, an area that comprises 22 parishes (Louisiana’s version of counties) between the Texas state line and the Mississippi River—an area, it should be noted that does not include New Orleans—crawfish were originally harvested by Native Americans. When the Acadians, now shortened to “Cajuns,” were exiled from Canada to the swampy territory in the 18th century, they traded their Northwestern lobsters for the South’s smaller crustaceans.
The same cultural transmission of cuisine took place much later in Houston, where Vietnamese immigrants quickly took to the local crawfish culture while adjusting the boils to include their own ingredients. But while Viet-style crawfish joints have become the norm in Houston, they were still foreign to this Cajun transplant until I ordered my first sack of spicy garlic butter mudbugs at LA Crawfish’s original outpost.
While the crawdads here are sourced from Louisiana farms, the execution is different from that used by Pelican State dwellers. Instead of seasoning the water with salt, pepper, cayenne and garlic salt as in most traditional Cajun boils, Vietnamese crawfish are often seasoned after, topping the hot-from-the-pot crawfish with a fragrant and buttery mess of sautéed onions and garlic with some of those familiar spices, like cayenne and paprika, as well as some additional and unexpected flavors, including ginger and lemongrass.
After cracking my first shell, I notice the taste is sweeter thanks to the liberal application of butter and a bit zestier, with notes of citrus, but the spiciness kicks close to home. It’s literally one hot mess, as the toppings smother both the bugs and the plastic-sheet-covered table. For a moment, I forget what iteration of crawfish I’m eating as I savor the meaty tails and suck the juicy, fatty heads. Or at least I forget until I see my neighbor downing a steaming bowl of noodles that boasts a boiled crawfish bobbing in the broth, effortlessly—and deliciously—connecting two vastly different cultures with one mud-dwelling crustacean.
I think I might need those chopsticks after all.