See the perpetually packed dining room and crowded kitchen at LA Crawfish in this week's slideshow.
LA Crawfish is everything I love about Houston in one untidy package.
Tucked into the middle of the food court inside Chinese grocery store 99 Ranch Market (which was first built as a Fiesta), LA Crawfish has enough real estate in its immediate fenced-in area to accommodate about 40 customers. I have never eaten at LA Crawfish when I've been able to do so in that area, however, because the sheer number of guests who flock to the Vietnamese crawfish joint pack the small dining area in the first hour that it's open every day.
By 11 a.m., customers have sprawled out into every other section of the food court that's not fenced in. I've sucked crawfish heads next to the dangling bodies of roasted Peking ducks in one corner of the massive food court. I've snapped open snow crab claws next to a steam table filled with puffy chicken feet in another. I've gulped down crawfish pho next to tables pushed together to contain a mountain of discarded crimson husks as the people who sit around them chat and visit over the feast.
To eat at LA Crawfish — or at least near it — is to experience a microcosm of Houston's great bounty of ethnic cuisines and its friendly, energetic, welcoming charm. Cozy up to the table next to you and start a conversation; let a stranger who knows a trick show you the best way to crack into a king crab leg; spot a few friends across the food court and form a super-table to enjoy your bounty together. This is the kind of dining that LA Crawfish encourages.
It also offers a far wider variety of food than just crawfish. Here, American and Cajun and Vietnamese and Chinese and even Thai all flow together in one jumble of LA Crawfish-brand cuisine. It's as natural a development as Malaysian cuisine, in which the southeast Asian country functions as a crossroads among Indian, Thai, Vietnamese, Chinese and more and has adopted all the best foods from each culture over the years.
Houston functions in much the same way these days, and second-generation immigrants like the young faces who run LA Crawfish think nothing of co-opting a Chinese five-spice blend or Thai tamarind sauce for their Hong Kong-style crispy chicken wings, or of putting Cajun andouille sausage and crawfish tails into pho. Some dishes make a little more sense than others — crawfish empanadas with a buttery, flaky dough, for example, as opposed to Canadian cheese curds (delicious yet still odd to find here) — but what really matters is that eating at LA Crawfish is always interesting and always satisfying.
I was wary of that crawfish pho at first, though. I'll admit that. It seemed as though the pho could cut one of two ways: Either it would be gimmicky and disappointing or I'd be slapped in the face with the recognition that the dish was the culmination of the charmingly messy way in which Vietnamese and Cajun cuisines have entangled themselves in port cities like Houston and New Orleans. I was hoping for a sharp slap.
And I got it with that first sip of cinnamon-laced pho broth. If regular pho can be compared to a dark roux, thick with the complex, jostling flavors of a handful of various spices — musky cloves and bitter anise and briny fish sauce — the crawfish pho broth is its blond sister.
It's subtle and graceful, a delicate broth to match the delicate seafood inside. The sweet tail meat of the crawfish is enhanced instead of overshadowed, as it absolutely would be in a heavier, beefier broth. Coins of andouille sausage bobbing in the broth serve to underscore this flavor, the pork adding its own zip of vivid spice while still keeping things light.
I am now convinced that this crawfish pho is one of an increasing number of reasons I can never leave Houston. Would I ever be able to find this again anywhere else? Even re-create it at home? Unlikely. I could definitely replicate the boiled crawfish, and perhaps even LA Crawfish's crawfish-stuffed empanadas, but never the pho.
To be perfectly honest, it's the pho and other assorted dishes that are more of a draw for me at LA Crawfish than the actual sacks of boiled crawfish. There is a silly joy to eating them — being handed an entire roll of paper towels and a giant plastic tablecloth after you order, setting up shop at a vacant table by filling miniature tubs with melted butter and mayonnaise topped with spices from LA Crawfish's condiments bar, grabbing that hot sack of bugs from across the counter mere minutes after paying (the crawfish come out very fast here) — but the bugs themselves are generally average.
This is doubly true if you go later in the evening, when the crawfish have been sitting in hot water for many hours and are nearly falling apart. And there's that line of demarcation between Cajun and Vietnamese-style crawfish that some Houstonians simply won't cross: The crawfish here are tossed with butter and spices after being boiled, the Vietnamese way of serving crawfish that many Cajuns simply can't abide. This is a matter of personal preference, of course, but consider yourself warned.
I will personally eat crawfish in any manner in which they're served to me, although I prefer to leave the Cajun spice blend alone and instead order the garlic butter boil on everything: crawfish, shrimp, snow crabs, king crabs. I can't resist the little nubs of charred garlic that flavor every crevice of the crustaceans. And I've taken to dipping them — especially the sweet snow crab — into mayo with a generous sprinkling of Chinese five-spice powder on top. It's a bizarre yet craveable combination of sweet, tangy and garlicky that licks across your tongue like Black Cats.
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Those same spices are put to excellent use in my second favorite dish at LA Crawfish: Chinese five-spice chicken wings. An idiosyncratic choice, to be sure, but I can't resist ordering a sixer every time I go. The standard five-spice blend mixes anise, cloves, cinnamon, fennel seeds and Sichuan numbing peppers that — on their own — will make your mouth feel as though it's been flooded with carbonated icewater. In the five-spice mix, however, the effect is somewhat muted.
I've never tasted any Sichuan peppers in the five-spice blend used in the chicken wings, however. Instead, I taste nutmeg and ginger. As such, the overall effect in the crispy batter is that of chicken and waffles, all in one glorious bite: sweet, buttery, meaty and full of warm spices that even come close to mimicking maple syrup. As with the crawfish pho, the five-spice chicken wings are a truly magnificent, triumphantly LA Crawfish creation.
More important, LA Crawfish and its dishes serve as a reminder that clever and ambitious cooking isn't found just in temples of haute cuisine here. In Houston, creative cuisine can be found high and low and often right around the corner. And sometimes even in the food court of a Chinese grocery store.