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While I'm waiting for a couple of pounds of boiled crawfish at Cajun Corner restaurant, I notice a young Vietnamese-American guy approach the little table covered with condiments near the front counter. He dumps several tablespoons of a ground red pepper into a small bowl, then he squirts in mayonnaise and ketchup and stirs it all up.
"Is that a dipping sauce for the crawfish?" I ask him in disbelief.
"Yeah," he says. "I like it really hot."
11526 Bellaire Blvd.
Houston, TX 77072
Region: Outer Loop - SW
Crawfish, per pound: $3.99
Side of potatoes: 50 cents
Side of corn: 50 cents
Crawfish fried rice: $5.99
Seafood gumbo: $4.99
Chicken wings with fries: $5.99
Gulf Coast Vietnamese-Americans are wild about Cajun-style boiled crawfish -- the spicier the better. On this Saturday afternoon, Cajun Corner is jumping. Almost every table is occupied, and almost everyone seems to be speaking Vietnamese.
Cajun Corner's owner, Quon Nguyen, used to work in a restaurant in Louisiana. When she moved to Houston, she noticed that there was no place to eat boiled crawfish in the huge Vietnamese neighborhood around Bellaire and Beltway 8. "You had to go all the way down Westheimer," she says. And since the Bellaire area was already crowded with excellent Asian restaurants, she opened a Cajun restaurant instead.
"Do you sell Chinese crawfish?" I ask Nguyen.
"No way! Louisiana crawfish," she says, offended. "Chinese crawfish don't taste as good. And anyway, my good friend is in the crawfish business in Lafayette."
"But what do you do in the off-season?"
"I get them from Wisconsin, or Minnesota, or sometimes Northern California -- my kids find them for me on the Internet," she says.
Cajun Corner also sells gumbo, étouffée, chicken wings, alligator platters and a full menu of Cajun specialties. The crawfish rice is excellent, but I tried the gumbo on a previous visit and found it enigmatically underseasoned, as was the pale étouffée. And the fried chicken wings were served without a sauce. There's a separate counter for the Chinese pork and egg noodle soup called mi, which can be ordered with a variety of meats or seafoods. But the vast majority of Cajun Corner's customers order nothing but crawfish and drinks. And judging by the action at the condiment table, they seem to regard sauce-making as part of the mudbug experience.
I get an ear of corn and some potatoes with my crawfish for 50 cents each. I notice the lady at the counter squirts the whole mess with a squeeze bottle of melted butter before she hands it over. Many of the crawfish are stained black under the curled tail section, but I never really minded a little mud.
Tray in hand, I study the condiment station. I've been eating crawfish for many years, but I can't say I've ever eaten it with a dipping sauce. There are lemon wedges, squeeze bottles of ketchup and mayonnaise, Louisiana hot sauce, salt and pepper mixed together and lots of pure ground cayenne. I imitate the spicy sauce-maker and create a dip out of cayenne, mayonnaise and ketchup in a little bowl. Then I add my own flourish: a squeeze of lemon. The concoction is fiendishly hot.
On the counter, directly above the hot sauce and red pepper, a golden-painted Buddha extends both hands up toward an illuminated Bud Light sign -- which reminds me, I'm going to need a beer to cool my mouth off.
In the food court of Hong Kong City Mall (11201 Bellaire Boulevard) on Wednesday at around 6 p.m., 15 tables are occupied, and 11 of them are covered with crawfish. At one long table, 18 Vietnamese-American kids sit around what looks like about 50 pounds of the mudbugs. I ask a guy named Steve Nguyen what he puts in his dipping sauce.
"Just red pepper and lemon," he says.
Down the table another kid protests. "You shouldn't have told him," he says. "Now we're going to have to kill him." After much laughter, they send me a bowl of sweet and sour catfish soup.
The most popular place to buy crawfish at Hong Kong City Mall is a stall called Crawfish & Beignets. The menu there also features gumbo, étouffée and other Cajun/ Creole specialties. I ask owner Maria Tran for a bowl of gumbo with my crawfish, but she shakes her head. Nobody bought the gumbo or the other Cajun specials, so she stopped making them. "Just crawfish with corn and potatoes," she says. "Do you want them spicy?" When I answer yes, she lets loose a cloud of cayenne from an aluminum shaker. The crawfish are excellent, clean and sweet. The cayenne coating covers my fingers, lips and tongue. My mouth is on the verge of spontaneous combustion.
Tran sells so much boiled crawfish that another food stall has started competing with her at the mall. Lucky Number 9 not only serves boiled crawfish with corn and potatoes, it also has garlic crabs. And, of course, both offer condiments for dipping sauce.
But while the crawfish business is booming, Tran was surprised to find that Houston's Vietnamese population was not enthusiastic about other Cajun dishes -- like the gumbos and étouffées she learned to make while working at a restaurant in New Orleans.
Judging by the empty dining room at Epoch Fusion Café (1915 Westheimer) one recent lunchtime, mainstream Houston diners haven't really taken to Vietnamese-Cajun food either. Epoch also is owned by a Vietnamese-American from Louisiana. The hors d'oeuvres list includes chicken wings, fried crab claws, Saigon egg rolls and duck spring rolls; entrées include Creole snapper, bacon-wrapped shrimp, ginger crispy duck and poached Oriental chicken. I sampled a bowl of Cajun chicken sausage gumbo, which was quite good, if a little underspiced. I also had a shrimp poor boy, with grilled shrimp that had been marinated in a soy sauce mixture.