On Bellaire Boulevard, restaurants, religious institutions, and small businesses line Houston’s streets. Statues, flags, and street signs quickly indicate that visitors, however, are in a different, albeit incredible, part of the city.
In Houston, Viet-Cajun cuisine has captured the hearts and tastes of Houstonians and visitors around the world. Crawfish & Noodles, one of the first locations to serve Viet-Cajun crawfish, sits in the heart of Houston’s Little Saigon on Bellaire, where some of the city’s best Vietnamese food has awed Houstonians. The popularity of Vietnamese adaptations to crawfish, however, shows that Viet-Cajun food has a strong and enduring influence on a rich and diverse cuisine that has existed in the region for decades.
The expansion of Viet-Cajun cuisine in the south embodies the significance of Vietnamese immigration to Texas–specifically Houston. As one of the most diverse cities in the nation, during the 1970s, Vietnamese immigrants and refugees found a home in the hot Texas city. Vietnamese immigrants continued to move to Houston, and today, more than 80,000 Vietnamese Americans call Houston home, making it home to one of the largest groups of Vietnamese people in the U.S. With their language, culture, and traditions, Vietnamese immigrants also brought to the U.S. their culinary expertise, which included a rich understanding of seafood, and French influences from the presence of French colonists in Vietnam. Vietnamese food can be found across Houston now, but the influence is especially present and can be felt in Little Saigon, just near Chinatown, where many businesses are named with the Vietnamese alphabet, pho and banh mi shops are abundant, and monuments to Vietnamese heroes line the Houston strip centers and streets. It’s of course, equally felt in the Viet-Cajun crawfish shops that are within Little Saigon, and across the city.
Viet Cajun crawfish builds on the traditional crawfish boil tradition that touches homes and restaurants throughout South Louisiana. In Houston, crawfish season revolves around the springtime, but can kick off as early as January and continue into July, depending on the weather. Crawfish is served in a steel bowl or large, clear plastic bag to ensure that all spices and sauces touch every part of the food. Crawfish is often served with common sides like potatoes, corn on the cob, and even sausage. Rather than solely using spice blends found in Cajun-influenced restaurants, Vietnamese chefs in Houston bathe the crawfish in butter sauce that’s often flavored with garlic, and many other secret–yet incredibly flavorful–spices. Viet-Cajun crawfish is also seasoned a bit differently. Some restaurateurs maintain traditional seasoning blends, while others add traditionally East and Southeast Asian flavors like Thai basil, lemongrass, ginger.
At Crawfish & Noodles, chef Chef Trong Nguyen has captured some of these rich and unforgettable flavors. Like many places, bright red crawfish is served in a large steel bowl with corn, sausage, and potatoes, should visitors choose to add the sides. As guests attach their bibs, a common staple at such diners where seasoning and liquid can easily stain, they await a taste different from some of the other more common crawfish restaurants. The multi-spice seasoning, a secret to outsiders, and butter bath make for a rich, indulgent meal that speaks to the Vietnamese and Cajun flavors that enrich the Bayou City. While Crawfish & Noodles wasn’t the first place to serve Viet-Cajun crawfish, it’s certainly one of the most recognized in the city. Nguyen’s work has been featured on television shows and media around the nation.
Many other restaurants have gotten into the Viet-Cajun crawfish game, too. LA Crawfish, a fairly large chain restaurant, serves the traditional garlic butter flavor, in addition to their house cajun and hot & sour seasonings. At Cajun Craven, owner and former shrimper and fisherman Henry Tran serves up some of the city’s favorite mudbugs, or crawfish, offering traditional Cajun crawfish and a sweet and sour flavor. Crawfish Cafe takes a sweet approach, and covers their crawfish in butter and sugar. Traditional flavors appeal to guests, as does lemon pepper and Thai basil. At Cajun Kitchen, Thai basil also makes an appearance in crawfish servings, while the Kitchen Special–a delightful mix of green onion, garlic, orange, lemon, butter, and garlic–proposes a unique perspective on the ever-evolving dish.
While crawfish is certainly central to the cuisine, Viet-Cajun cuisine goes beyond crawfish, and chefs are starting to find new and ingenious ways to marry Cajun and Vietnamese flavors. At Crawfish and Beignets, the love and respect for Texas and Louisiana is evident in the name, and on the table. First opened in Houston’s Hong Kong City Mall in Chinatown back in 2000 by former residents of Avondale, Louisiana, Crawfish & Beignets tries to directly capture the best of both states. Viet-Cajun crawfish, known there as “Krajun” crawfish, is tossed with the buttery, garlicky sauce, along with green onions, peppers, and other herbs. It’s served bathed in the sauce in a steel bowl, and guests can determine which heat level suits them. It’s certainly a star dish, but other menu items showcase a more varied approach to the cuisine’s development. Decadent fried oyster nachos are also a favorite, as are the beignets layered with a sweet topping of condensed milk or honey. Seafood platters of crab, crawfish, shrimp, and other ocean treats illustrate the restaurant’s love for what comes from the nearby waters.
Viet-Cajun represents the ongoing interest in fusion cuisine, which has touched just about every city in America. With at least 47 million immigrants living in the United States, cross-cultural cooking is inevitable. Restaurants, pop-ups, and food trucks have managed to construct cuisines that reflect the diverse cities leading America’s cultural shifts. Oh My Gogi meshes Korean and Mexican flavors to make favorites like their ramen burger, kimchi quesadillas, and the Gogi melt, an Asian-Mexican take on the traditional Texas melt. Da Gama blends Portuguese and Indian flavors to inform its beloved dishes, like cassava bombas, a tapas-style plate of yucca croquettes, pimento cheese, and tomato neem chutney; pork paneer, a meal of braised pork curry with kashmiri chili, green peas, and potatoes; and margao pizza, a dish of Goan choris sausage, spiced tomato sauce, goat cheese, kale, mixed olives. And at Shalom Japan in New York City, chefs Aaron Israel and Sawako Okochi use their individual Jewish and Japanese heritage to craft creative and delicious meals, like okonomiyaki with wagyu pastrami, sauerkraut, bonito flakes; Matzoh ball ramen, and a lox bowl with sushi rice, ikura, avocado, japanese pickles, fried capers, chili mayo.
It’s true to the nature of the U.S., and the culture of Houston, that Viet-Cajun cuisine has taken off. No longer is the traditional crawfish boil the only dish that’s been adapted. At LA Crawfish and Thai Gourmet, Cajun pho filled with various spices, seasonings, and crawfish, soothe and warm eager eaters. Dishes like fried rice and turkey-based dishes also get the Viet-Cajun treatment, with a delightful mix of Viet and Cajun flavors taking center stage.
While Viet-Cajun cuisine is uniquely Houston in its origins, the roots of Viet-Cajun and the close proximity in which Houston is to other major cities has made way for a rapid transferring of ideas, and new inspiration for chefs near and far. Vietnamese chef and New Orleans native Anh Luu helped introduce Viet-Cajun cuisine to Portland, Oregon at her restaurant Tapalaya, before returning to New Orleans. She recently opened Bywater Brewpub in New Orleans’ Bywater Neighborhood. When in season, guests can enjoy a traditional bowl of crawfish with sides, but Bywater Brewpub takes the idea of Viet-Cajun a bit further. Using inspiration from the city’s French, Spanish, Caribbean, and African cultures that have influenced New Orleanian cuisine, the restaurant also serves dishes like crawfish étouffée nachos, complete with fried wonton chips, cheddar and cotija cheese, scallions, and cilantro; Vietnamese BBQ shrimp served with a black pepper buttermilk drop biscuit, and beer beignet bites, which are covered in powdered sugar and served with chicory coffee condensed milk. Beer plays a constant role at the restaurant, where 12 taps for their beers are brewed on restaurant grounds. At BOIL Seafood House, red mudbugs are served up alongside their corn and potato counterparts, and visitors can also enjoy “bang bang” shrimp, which are tossed in a spicy, creamy sauce; crawfish étouffée, and various seafood combos served with different options for heat and spice options. Hieux Boil Seafood House serves Viet-Cajun style seafood, too–here, Hieu Doan, who also oversees BOIL, serves crawfish, as well as options like lobster, crab, clams, and mussels, with the indisputable garlic butter sauce and spiced to each person’s liking.
While the South remains central to Viet-Cajun cuisine, restaurateurs in other cities have tried to incorporate Viet-Cajun into their dining communities. In Charleston, Asian-owned King Claw – Juicy Seafood & Bar has experimented with using different spices and heat levels. True to the cuisine, the garlic butter sauce remains a mainstay ahead of serving their crawfish to guests. The West and East coasts have tried to get into the game, too. In Los Angeles, eateries like the Fire Crab and the Boiling Crab have taken the city by storm, while the Shaking Crab and Shaking Seafood have become mainstays for displaced Viet-Cajun enthusiasts.
Houston’s Vietnamese community has developed a cuisine, and helped to reshape a longstanding food tradition. Using the incredible flavors of the Cajun communities that have shaped Louisiana and some of Texas’ cuisine for generations, their role in food and culture is invaluable. Regardless of where one gets their Viet-Cajun, eaters can thank the melting pot of cultures in Houston that have allowed such a vibrant and delightful cuisine to flourish in the south and across the nation.