Chef Chat

Chef Chat, Part 2: Trong Nguyen of Crawfish and Noodles, on the Vietnamese Food in His Menu, the Flavor of His Crawfish

read Part 1 here and Part 3 in this same space Friday.

EOW: So you took over this restaurant and it's in the dumps. How did you bring it back up?

TN: What I did is I rephrased the whole strategy. You see people losing money? They cut costs and try to save the food product. I did the total opposite. I dumped everything away. That means that every day, whatever leftover food we had, we'd dump it and cook a new one, dump it, cook a new one. So the food cost kept on rising up, but then that's how we build the quality food. And then we constantly work on the food taste. If I want to put out a dish, I let my family and friends taste it. I say, "Hey, I cook something for you, taste it and see if you like it." And then if you taste it and you say, "Okay, there's something missing here," then I kind of get your idea and I re-season it so I can make it to where you like it, until everyone who tastes it likes it.

EOW: Let's talk about your kitchen. You have the Cajun side, the crawfish side and the Vietnamese side. You named your place Crawfish and Noodles, but you have a lot more than noodles. Were you originally only going to do noodles and then added on?

TN: Originally, yes, we were thinking about doing just noodles and the crawfish.

EOW: And the noodles would have been what?

TN: The noodles are the three traditional: pho, mi quang and hu tieu. The pho (beef noodle soup) is traditional for the north Vietnamese. The hu tieu is for the south Vietnamese, and the mi quang, which is for central Vietnam. We still have all three. People always think of the first part of the name -- crawfish, so they come for crawfish -- but noodle soups sell a lot, too.

EOW: So you've got crawfish and noodle soup -- what about the rest of the menu? How did that evolve?

TN: Everything, every day added on, like the chicken wing we added on at the beginning. But when the restaurant first opened, the main thing was crawfish and noodle soup, and a little fried rice.

EOW: So now it should be crawfish and noodle and Vietnamese.

TN: Yeah, it should be "Crawfish and Vietnamese cuisine." The menu got larger every day because of customer requests.

EOW: So what is your favorite dish on the menu now? Skip the crawfish -- we know that's good.

TN: My favorite dish is still the com bo luc lac (cubed beef with rice) -- that's what I like. It's a very easy and very simple dish, but we cook it very thoroughly, with a lot of seasonings, to make it more flavorful. We tried making it 15 or 20 times before I put it on the menu. The fried rice is also my favorite. That's what I like to eat and that's why we put it on the menu. It's a big seller here.

EOW: Let's get back to the crawfish flavor -- describe your crawfish to me.

TN: The original crawfish is from Louisiana, so everybody thinks that New Orleans people make good crawfish. Where I come from, at the casino, we did have a crawfish bar. The way they cook it, they have the big boiler with seasoning in it, cook the whole bag of crawfish and then let it sit for five minutes so that there's a lot of flavor in the crawfish head. Most people do it this way. What we do here is we make our own seasoning, but we don't want the crawfish to soak in the crawfish, because that would defeat the purpose of eating the seafood. We want flavor enough to coat the outside, with a little bit of flavor so you can suck the head, but not in the body. I want the customer to have the taste of the seasoning outside, but still taste the freshness inside the crawfish -- when you take the meat out, it's crunchy and fresh.

EOW: Your crawfish sauce, is it the same sauce with different levels of spice? How would you describe the flavor?

TN: Yes, we say it's garlic and butter, but technically there's a lot more seasoning in there. It's a Cajun sauce.

EOW: Okay, we asked about the noodles -- why did you decide to do crawfish? Why not just open up a Vietnamese restaurant?

TN: Crawfish is always in demand.

EOW: But it's seasonal.

TN: Yeah, seasonal. That's why we have the noodles along with it, because beside the crawfish, we have the noodles, the Vietnamese kitchen to back it up.

EOW: When is crawfish season?

TN: When crawfish season is good, from January to June, the end of July. The end of July, it's over.

EOW: Okay, from August to December, what's going on?

TN: After August -- the end of July to end of August, the crawfish basically drains out completely.

EOW: When do you stop serving crawfish?

TN: We don't. What we do is we import crawfish from California. When we are out of the crawfish in Louisiana, the California crawfish is in season. So, from August to November, we are serving California crawfish. We pretty much close in August. By December, Louisiana crawfish season has started. The crawfish are smaller, but they are starting to come out around Thanksgiving.

EOW: Okay, you personally, do you like smaller or larger crawfish?

TN: I like medium and large crawfish. Their meat is very juicy. They aren't so hard; the head is soft to peel. And it's very easy to cook, too.

EOW: Because people like big ones, but I don't like them -- they kind of scare me.

TN: The big one is very good for show, but it's harder to cook. We have to get a lot more seasoning in there to make it more flavorful.

EOW: When do you get the biggest crawfish?

TN: The biggest are supposed to be this time of year, but this year, the crawfish is kind of off season. It's end of March; we're supposed to have the big, big jumbo size. But even though there is a jumbo out there, we only do it for the customer request. We mainly do selected crawfish. Selected crawfish means they are large but they are all the same level. We don't have a very big one with a very small one. We'd rather have all large, about the same size. We pay extra money for selected crawfish.

EOW: For instance, today is a day that you run out of the crab. Tell me about the dishes that are available most of the time but not all of the time, and why.

TN: Most of the time, we have the Vietnamese food, because it's always manageable. Sometimes, we run out of the fresh seafood -- crab, crawfish -- so we can't sell lit. The fried rice dish is always available. The Cajun shrimp, a jumbo nine to 12 count, with the shell on it, we boil it with the crawfish sauce. We serve it hot or cold.

EOW: Recently you've been getting a lot of recognition from national media. Tell us about that.

TN: The first person that recognized us was Jenny Wang, the founder of Houston Chowhounds. She taste-tested here, but she didn't tell us who she was. Thanks to her, My Table Magazine chose us as one of the best crawfish places in Houston. Then Alison Cook wrote about us. Recently, Food & Wine came from New York. The New York Times and Wall Street Journal also mentioned us. And in November, Andrew Zimmern came and did a show with us for the Travel Channel. It's for his new show that hasn't aired yet. And a lot more newspapers and magazines.

EOW: And you don't have any PR; it's just you, right?

TN: We just got lucky. What I do here is I concentrate on the quality of the food.

EOW: And this is a new location. How long have you been in this location now?

TN: One year now.

EOW: And how many days are you in the kitchen?

TN: Seven days a week. Right now it's crawfish season and as long as the store is open, I am here. When it's off season, summer season, we close on Tuesday.

EOW: And your family, who else works here?

TN: My son helps me out as a server. My wife, she has the two kids, so does a lot of the paperwork, but she doesn't cook. But my mom helps me in the back with the Vietnamese food.

EOW: So it's you, your mom, your wife -- it's a true mom-and-pop. That's so great. So, your friends who thought you were crazy when you quit your job, do they still think you're crazy?

TN: No. (Smiles.) They ask to be my partner.

Check back with us tomorrow as we taste some of Nguyen's food at Crawfish and Noodle.

Crawfish and Noodles 11360 Bellaire Tel: 281-988-8098

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Mai Pham is a contributing freelance food writer and food critic for the Houston Press whose adventurous palate has taken her from Argentina to Thailand and everywhere in between -- Peru, Spain, Hong Kong and more -- in pursuit of the most memorable bite. Her work appears in numerous outlets at the local, state and national level, where she is also a luxury travel correspondent for Forbes Travel Guide.
Contact: Mai Pham