Seafood dealer Jim Gossen sat in the booth across from me at Boiling Crab. It was the first time I had ever seen him with tears in his eyes. No, Gossen wasn't overcome by his emotions — the crawfish were so damn spicy, they were making his eyes water and his nose run.
"I sure am glad I ordered them mild," he said. "Who eats the extra-spicy at this place?" Between us were two plastic bags full of highly seasoned crawfish and a big pile of crawfish remains. We were sampling the butter-and-garlic and the lemon pepper flavors. You can also get Cajun flavor and a mixture of "all of the above" called "The Whole Shebang." Lime wedges and two plastic cups, one full of salt and black pepper and the other full of cayenne, were also brought to the table in case you wanted to spike the seasoning level a bit.
The restaurant is located in the Asian shopping center at Beltway 8 and Beechnut. I'm not sure if the decor was inspired by SpongeBob's Krusty Krab, but the Boiling Crab has a similar nautical theme. There is a rowboat hanging from the ceiling and lots of nets, lines and fishing gear on the walls.
8300 W. Sam Houston Pkwy. S., 281-988-4750.
Hours: 3 to 10 p.m. Mondays through Fridays; noon to 10 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays.
Crawfish: $6 lb.
Blue crab: $6 lb.
King crab: $18 lb.
Snow crab: $11 lb
The crawfish are boiled and then tossed with mild, medium, spicy or extra-spicy seasoning mixture after they come out of the pot. Then the crawdaddies are placed in plastic bags with the additional flavor you select. Ask for garlic butter flavor and you get a bag of crawfish in a thick, spicy goo of orange grease flecked with tiny chunks of garlic. The gunk tastes delicious and coats everything it touches.
Maybe the tears in Gossen's eyes were from laughing at the orange clown make-up all over my face. I kept mopping my mouth with paper towels, but each piece of paper came away as orange and greasy as the last one. The table looked like the aftermath of a chorizo explosion.
Gossen preferred the milder and more manageable lemon pepper flavor. We were both impressed by the zing that a squeeze of lime added to a crawfish tail. When crawfish come out of the boiling pot, they suck up liquid, so anything you put on them is going to be absorbed, Gossen pointed out.
It was Jim Gossen, Floyd Landry and their crew from Lafayette who first introduced crawfish to Houston back in the 1980s. People in Houston didn't know how to eat them back then, Gossen said with a smile. Now Houston consumes more crawfish than New Orleans.
A month or so ago, Gossen was visiting the Atchafalaya Swamp, checking out the wild-crawfish season. The wild season fluctuates with the rise and fall of the Mississippi River, typically beginning around late March. We should have a lot of wild crawfish coming onto the market in June as the level of the river recedes, Gossen predicts. The farm-raised crawfish season is ending now as the rice farms start planting their crop.
I call Gossen every year at the beginning of the crawfish season to ask about the market forecast. This year he surprised me. He pointed out that every year I have written a story about the high price and tiny size of crawfish. But crawfish are always expensive at the beginning of the season — that's when demand is highest, thanks to the combination of Lent and consumer enthusiasm. They also get bigger as the season progresses.
Wait until late in the season, and you get bigger crawfish at lower prices, he suggested. I heard the same thing from Morgan City native Brooks Bassler, the owner of BB's Cajun Cafe. "I don't start selling crawfish until after Easter," he said.
So this year, I waited until late in the season to start eating crawfish. And I have to say, it's a great idea. People were standing in line for an hour to get into the Boiling Crab a few weeks ago — on a recent Wednesday, there was no wait at all. The price of crawfish has come down too. Boiling Crab has dropped their price a dollar since the beginning of the season, from $7 to $6 a pound. And Boiling Crab may be the most popular crawfish spot in town.
I first wrote about Vietnamese-owned Cajun restaurants that specialize in crawfish seven years ago in a review called "Asian Cajuns" [April 25, 2002]. Last year, I started getting e-mails from food writers in other cities asking me about the phenomenon. Crawfish King is a new crawfish restaurant in Seattle owned by a Vietnamese-Houstonian. And there's Vietnamese crawfish joints in Southern California and Washington, D.C., too.
As I explained back then, after the fall of Saigon, Vietnamese immigrants gravitated to the Gulf Coast because they were familiar with the seafood industry. Their affinity for Cajun food was a natural. Both cuisines are rice- and seafood-based, extremely spicy and French-influenced. Baguettes, strong coffee and crawfish are common to both.
The Vietnamese have been on the Gulf Coast for nearly 40 years now, and the new generation has made the native culture its own. Boiling Crab is owned by a shrimp and crab fisherman from Seadrift. The first location was opened in Southern California in 2003. There are now several Boiling Crabs in California, one in Dallas and one in Houston.
When I wrote about Asian-Cajun crawfish back in 2002, there was very little difference between the Vietnamese and the Cajun version. But now, with the addition of the garlic butter and lemon pepper flavoring choices and the little bowls of dipping sauces offered at the table, it's fair to say that Vietnamese crawfish restaurants have developed their own unique style.
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Which is not to say they are all the same. There are half a dozen new crawfish joints in the Little Saigon area. I also visited a new Vietnamese-style crawfish restaurant a few blocks down Beechnut called Jolynn's. The owner said she was from Washington State. Her crawfish came in the same garlic butter and lemon pepper flavors, but the medium spice level there wasn't very hot at all. At Jolynn's, the garlic butter crawfish tasted like crawfish and garlic butter — and that's it. It was kind of pleasant to savor the delicate flavor of the crawfish instead of cayenne. The crawfish are bigger and cheaper too, at only $5 a pound.
Even though his company, Louisiana Foods, is a major crawfish source in Houston, Gossen had never eaten crawfish Vietnamese-style before. He was very impressed. He was especially fond of the boiled crab.
"The crawfish aren't that big, but that was a No. 1-size crab, and it had a lot of meat in it," he said. The crab was seasoned the same as the crawfish. "They're really tasty," he said, digging in a plastic bag for another mudbug. "But they sure are messy."
You still have plenty of time. The 4th of July is the traditional end of the season, Gossen said. Boiling Crab claims it will have plenty of crawfish through September.