Chef Chat, Part 3: Trong Nguyen of Crawfish and Noodles, Crawfish and Classic Vietnamese All Under One Roof

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This is the third part of a three-part Chef Chat series. If you missed our previous posts, you can read Part 1 here and Part 2 here.

This week, we got to know the chef and owner of Crawfish and Noodles, Trong Nguyen. We learned how he struggled to maintain the restaurant while holding down a full-time job in a totally different industry; how he quit his job to take over the restaurant's kitchen and operations; and how he turned what would have been an unsuccessful restaurant into one where there are lines out the door on weekends. His restaurant is emblematic of this Vietnamese crawfish movement that has swept across Houston, a fact that hasn't gone unnoticed by the national media. Today we taste some of his food.

We start with his crawfish, large, selected crawfish that are almost all the same size. There is only one sauce. You can get it mild, medium or hot, depending on your sprice preference. Mine happens to be mild.

Ordered by the pound, the crawfish are delivered to your table in a big plastic bag. You can dump them into large silver bowls or straight onto the table to be enjoyed in batches, keeping a portion of the crawfish in the bag so they remain piping hot. The sauce is a garlic butter base with a proprietary seasoning blend. The effect is a somewhat sweet, buttery, garlicky Cajun flavor is that is wholly addictive because it enhances the sweetness of the crawfish flesh. On Friday nights and weekends, every single table in the restaurant is awash with a sea of crawfish carcasses.

While the crawfish is pretty amazing, we tasted Vietnamese dishes that were up there with the best I've had in Houston. The pièce de résistance, for me, was the blue crab, or cua rang muoi dish, a traditional Vietnamese preparation that is typically just a dry salt flavor. Nguyen's version takes the traditional flavor and amps it up so that the flavor of the crab is not just dry and salty. It's savory, somewhat sweet, crispy, buttery, rich and quite simply fantastic. Sucking on the crab shell is pure food joy. And when you're finished with the legs and the body of the crab, don't forget to munch on the shell. On the occasions I've had this dish, the shell is edible like a potato chip, except with an oceanic crab flavor.

Crab seems to be a strong point at Crawfish and Noodles, because I'd say that the Dungeness crab is another must-order. You can order the dry salted version, or for a tangy twist, order the cua rang me, or tamarind crab. The tamarind sauce is also classic Vietnamese. Order it with a touch of spice to bring the flavors alive.

From the Cajun side of the kitchen, Nguyen's turkey neck is unbelievably delicious. It's served with a side of French bread and a few slivers of onion, and the stew-like sauce is packed with heat that leaves a long burn on the end of it, but it's so good, it tastes more like somebody's grandmother's secret recipe than a dish you'd find in a restaurant. The flavors reminded me of the famous Vietnamese beef stew, bo kho, only sweeter, richer and more spicy.

Another example of classic Vietnamese cooking was the bo tai chanh, or salad of raw beef cooked with lime. Some places do this with just the beef. Nguyen's version is like a Vietnamese salad with the beef mixed in -- lotus roots, shredded carrot and other shredded vegetables are slightly pickled and crunchy. The beef itself is tender and flavorful, with that just-cooked, slightly pink hue. Nguyen's mother is generally the one who makes this dish, so you get the effect of a real mom's cooking.

Nguyen told me that his favorite dish is the bo luc lac. This is the classic dish of Vietnamese cubed beef. The rice plate is great to order for one. You can forgo the crawfish altogether and come for a plate of this alone. It's served with a healthy dose of whole garlic cloves, and I found the meat to be tender and flavorful. The accompanying rice, made with French butter, tastes almost like glutinous sweet rice and complements the dish well.

Nguyen cooks up some nuoc mam chicken wings.

And for the finale, nuoc mam, or fish sauce chicken wings, are just crazy good. Deep fried and then finished off in a wok with Nguyen's own mix of special fish sauce, the wings are just packed with flavor and, miraculously, without even a hint of that sometimes stinky fish flavor of the fish sauce. My hands got sticky eating these, but I really didn't care. You can order these for the table to fight over, or just order a plate of them with fried rice for a good chicken dinner.

Nguyen's crawfish is a good example of the Vietnamese crawfish Cajun flavor, which marries sweet garlic with the spices typical in Cajun cooking. Though the crawfish are notable, it's his Vietnamese food that truly wows. From the hefty plates of fantastically flavored blue crab to the savory nuoc mam chicken wings, Nguyen may not be a classically trained chef or a culinary school-trained chef, but he is definitely master of his kitchen.

Crawfish and Noodles 11360 Bellaire Blvd Tel: 281-988-8098 www.facebook.com/pages/Crawfish-Noodles/150401581724

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