Growing up, I always thought it was strange when people in other parts of the country would ask me if I rode a horse to school because I lived in Texas. After all, if we had the internet in Texas, you’d think it would be safe to assume we had cars as well. But Texas, love it or hate it, will always be a target for certain stereotypes, especially when once a year the fourth largest city in the nation deals with traffic backups because trail riders are coming into the city.
But I’m always happy when some piece of media comes along that shows the rest of the world that Houston is more than just big belt buckles and oil tycoons. We’re a microcosm of the world, far more interesting than the stereotypes we’ve long been saddled with. And so it was with great enthusiasm I hit play on episode four of David Chang’s new Netflix series Ugly Delicious, “Shrimp and Crawfish.”
Don’t be deceived by the title; while the two crustaceans mentioned in the title are featured prominently in the episode, they’re really just a mechanism to look a whole host of ideas, from conservation of food sources to the battle of traditional cooking versus fusion cooking to whether or not food can break down barriers between cultures. It’s that last part that makes the episode so exciting and one of the best pieces of TV I’ve seen in recent memory.
“Is Houston the most exciting food city in America right now? The world, maybe?” Chang asks early in the episode. It’s through Viet-Cajun crawfish that viewers are introduced to a Houston that is more than just—as Chef Chris Shepherd points out—“Mexican food, steak and barbecue.” We live in a city where cultures merge and mingle, where even conservatives eat the food of immigrants.
“When it comes to food, people don’t really think about politics, honestly,” says Trong Nguyen of Crawfish and Noodles in one scene, and that’s something that feels not only very true but very necessary in 2018.
While Shepherd gets perhaps the best quotes of the episode, the real breakout Houston star is Ai Le, the chef/owner of Nam Giao. His demeanor is so positive you can feel it radiating through the screen; Chang refers to him as “literally an angel.”
“Food is the bridge that makes the general public understand the Vietnamese better,” Le says, before explaining that the reason he keeps the prices on his difficult to produce creations low is a way to give thanks to the country that took him in.
“Shrimp and Crawfish” isn’t always an easy watch; it touches on issues of racism and immigration that are uncomfortable, but the kind of uncomfortable we have to be willing to acknowledge. Because by acknowledging it, we can better appreciate how far we’ve come, even while acknowledging there is still a ways to go.
The episode ends back in Houston at a cookout. There’s Vietnamese-inspired smoked hog, shrimp cocktail (with Whataburger ketchup used in the sauce, because of course) and Viet-Cajun crawfish. It’s a lineup of food that you won’t find in many places, but in Houston it just feels right.
“It’s a beautiful time to be here,” Chris Shepherd says to end the episode, and I couldn’t agree more.