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."
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.
The idea of making poor boys with grilled Asian-style shrimp instead of the usual fried stuff is a brilliant innovation. I would have loved to recommend the Asian shrimp poor boy as a Vietnamese improvement on Cajun cuisine -- if only the bread had been better. Instead of the toasted Vietnamese mini-baguette we take for granted on $2 bahn mi thit (Vietnamese sandwiches), Epoch Fusion Café serves the fabulous shrimp on something that tasted like an oversize hot dog bun. Evidently, there are still a few bugs to work out in Vietnamese-Cajun fusion.
The truth is that the owners of these restaurants are simply serving Vietnamese and Cajun foods side by side, the fusion occurring incrementally and mostly by accident -- crawfish finding their way over to the fried rice. It's actually quite a natural process. The two cuisines have a lot in common. Rice is the basic staple of Vietnamese and Louisiana cookery, and both rely heavily on fresh seafood and chile peppers. And since both were also once French colonies, they speak the same language in the kitchen; baguettes, beignets and café au lait are as well known in Saigon as in New Orleans. Poor boys and bahn mi thit are remarkably similar, despite the fact that they evolved half a world away from each other.
The Asian-Cajun connection also raises some fascinating issues about the evolution of Gulf Coast ethnic communities. "Food traditions are particularly intriguing because they are some of the most persistent of traditions," writes Louisiana cultural anthropologist Maida Owens. "As a result, food often becomes closely tied to cultural identity and can reveal cultural processes such as blending, diffusion or maintenance."
Louisiana gumbo, with its African, European and Native American elements, is a prime example of the cultural blending process called creolization, says Owens. Tex-Mex, the hyphenated offspring of two distinct cultures, is what scholars call hybridization. But Vietnamese-Cajun fusion is something different. According to one expert, it's a clear case of syncretism, a word anthropologists use to describe the absorption of one culture's traditions by another.
The Vietnamese, who were under Chinese rule for a thousand years and a were French colony for 150, have a long tradition of culinary syncretism, says Carl Bankston, an associate professor of sociology and Asian studies at Tulane University. Pho, for instance, is an adaptation of Chinese noodles, but now it's as Vietnamese as it can be. The Vietnamese baguette, with its component of rice flour, is a distinctly Vietnamese version of French bread. The Vietnamese have learned to adapt to outside domination by taking foreign influences and making them their own, says Bankston. And the results of these innovations are authentically Vietnamese.
"But why is it that while Mexican and Chinese restaurant owners watered down their cuisines to suit American tastes, Vietnamese restaurant owners seem to be going in the opposite direction, opening restaurants that appeal to fellow Vietnamese-Americans?" I ask.
For one thing, the Vietnamese community is very large, big enough to support a lot of restaurants, he explains. But the other reason has to do with employment patterns: According to Bankston, many Vietnamese came to the Gulf Coast to seek employment in the seafood industry -- and they continue to be disproportionately employed in fishing, shrimping and seafood processing.
Unlike Chinese and Mexican immigrants, the Vietnamese typically did not support themselves by opening restaurants. Because they didn't have to appeal to mainstream customers, they did not dilute their cuisine as much. "It's the same with Vietnamese-Creole food," he says. "It's designed to appeal to new generations of Vietnamese. It's not a watered-down cuisine for the American palate."
I tell Bankston about the Vietnamese crawfish dipping sauce and ask him if he's ever seen it in Louisiana. "No," he says, "but Louisianans make a dipping sauce for their oysters. And everybody has their own combination of horseradish, lemon, ketchup and so on. Maybe the Vietnamese saw the locals making oyster dips and tried the same thing with crawfish."
At Lucky Number 9 in Hong Kong City Mall, I meet a black woman named Annette Allison. She's mixing a bowl of dipping sauce to eat with her crawfish. Besides me and my companion, she and her friends are the only non-Asians in the food court.
"I like the crawfish here," she says. "They're clean and really spicy." But Crawfish & Beignets' are better than the ones at Lucky Number 9, she says. I ask her if she has always eaten crawfish with a dipping sauce.
"No, but I saw everybody else doing it here and it looked good," she says. If Bankston is right, and the Vietnamese started making crawfish dip by imitating Louisiana oyster-eaters, then crawfish-dipping Houstonians like Allison and me are now imitating the imitators.
"The Vietnamese case isn't really all that different from the Chinese or the Mexican model. Gradually [Vietnamese restaurants] will change as they branch out to serve the wider public," says Bankston. "But the American palate is changing, too. As America becomes a more diverse society, average Americans eat more spicy foods than they used to."
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Allison makes her dip with cayenne and lemon, but another woman at her table asks the owner of Crawfish & Beignets to microwave a few pats of butter in a small bowl and then adds lemon, in an interesting allusion to the drawn butter traditionally served with lobster. Someone else at the table adds the salt-and-pepper mix to their dip.
I consider sharing the recipe for my killer cayenne-ketchup rémoulade with Allison, but I'm already becoming proprietary about it. If I gave her the secret recipe, I might have to kill her.
"The Future of Fusion" looked at five Houston fusion cuisines in an attempt to understand what the foods say about the cultures that created them. The complete series can be found online and will be presented at an academic panel titled "Global Food? Fusion, Creolization and Hybridity in Culinary Culture" at the annual meeting of the American Studies Association in Houston this November.