Houston ( Houston Chronicle)The true origins of Vietnamese-Cajun crawfish – boiled mudbugs slathered in garlicky butter and liberally dusted with spices – might never be known.
But it’s safe to say Houston owns the fusion dish, which is enjoying time in the national food spotlight.
In mid-February, the James Beard Foundation named semifinalists for its annual awards, the country’s highest culinary honor. Trong Nguyen, owner of Crawfish & Noodles in Chinatown – which helped define and popularize Viet-Cajun cuisine – made the cut. It was a singular feat for a chef specializing in the distinctly Houston-style mudbugs.
Crawfish & Noodles’ contributions to Viet-Cajun crawfish were further underscored in an episode of the new, buzzed-about Netflix documentary series “Ugly Delicious,” in which host/celebrity chef David Chang visits the restaurant with Houston chefs Chris Shepherd and Justin Yu (all three James Beard Award winners) to wax rhapsodic about Nguyen’s crawfish.
Houston’s large population of Vietnamese immigrants, who were responsible for making pho and banh mi part of the city’s diet, also developed an appreciation for boiled crawfish in the late 1990s. The dish began to evolve from there. When the traditional Louisiana crawfish boil met the Chinatown strip-center restaurant, food writer/historian Robb Walsh wrote in 2014, a “hybrid was born.”
Early versions of crawfish served at Vietnamese-owned restaurants resembled Louisiana boils but with more spices in the water; the crawfish came with squeeze bottles of condiments to create dipping sauces. When garlic butter entered the picture can’t be pinpointed. Walsh wrote that the trend started in Houston but noted a story in the Los Angeles Times that claims it began with the Boiling Crab restaurant in Orange County, Calif., in 2004. Food historian John T. Edge has placed the origin of boiled crawfish finished in a buttery blend of garlic, lemon pepper and Cajun spices with Boiling Crab in the early 2000s.