It was Saturday night, and five of us were sitting at a picnic table outside on the deck at Swampy's Cajun Shack on Grand Parkway just south of I-10 in Katy, eating crawfish, drinking beer and listening to a Hawaiian/Tex-Mex cover band.
The boiled crawfish at Swampy's turn your fingers orange. That's because they're coated with peppery powder after they come out of the spicy boil. Absent-mindedly licking my sticky fingers, I kept putting a fresh coat of cayenne on my palate. I used a couple of bottles of Lone Star to quench the fire.
Swampy's Cajun Shack
406 W. Grand Pkwy. South, Katy, 281-347-2847.
Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sundays through Thursdays; 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays.
Crawfish: $3.50 a pound
Oysters: $8 a dozen
Half and half poor boy: $12
Cajun stuffed tomato: $9
Swampy's has become one of my favorite places to eat crawfish lately — not only because of the lip-sizzling spice level and the outdoor seating but also because the mudbugs are a relative bargain at $3.50 a pound. The price in Houston seems to be averaging between $4.50 and $5.50 a pound so far this season.
After scarfing down several pounds of crawfish, we ordered some dinner. A bowl of seafood gumbo was short on seafood but pleasant tasting. And the creamy crawfish bisque was excellent. The rest of the meal was awful. One of my companions got a crawfish poor boy that was so dry, she just gave up and ate the fried crawfish and threw the rest of the sandwich away.
I got a half oyster and half shrimp poor boy that held very little seafood and not much in the way of dressing. The fried oysters were passable, but the butterflied shrimp were overcooked and woody. I salvaged the poor boy by dumping all the seafood onto half of the sandwich and pouring the little container of ranch dressing that came with one of my tablemate's salads over it. Then I doused it with Louisiana hot sauce. It wasn't great, but I needed to soak up the beer with something.
My tablemate didn't care that I had stolen her dressing, because she couldn't eat the salad anyway. It was billed as a Cajun stuffed tomato. It turned out to be a rock-hard, underripe tomato cut into quarters and stuffed with tasteless chicken salad and industrial potato salad.
But we didn't let the lackluster food ruin the party. We got a couple dozen raw oysters that tasted watery until we covered them with horseradish and hot sauce, and we ordered another round of beers. When the band returned after their break, they launched into a couple of my favorites. I think I might have embarrassed my crawfish-eating crew as I bellowed along to Freddy Fender's masterpiece "Before the Next Teardrop Falls," at the top of my lungs.
Seafood wholesaler Jim Gossen of Louisiana Foods speculates that Houston consumes far more crawfish than New Orleans and possibly more than all of Louisiana — which is pretty amazing, since boiled crawfish were relatively rare in Houston 30 years ago.
"When I was a kid, crawfish season was from March to May," Gossen told me. When the ice melted up north, the Mississippi River would swell and the Atchafalaya Basin would flood, Gossen said. And for a few months, wild crawfish were everywhere. They were ridiculously cheap in those days.
Gossen and the Landry family introduced boiled crawfish to Houston at Don's, Houston's first Cajun restaurant, which opened in 1976. The mudbugs weren't very popular at first, Gossen remembers. "We ended up using most of the crawfish we bought as a garnish because nobody would eat it."
But thanks to the 1980s oil boom, more and more Cajuns moved to Houston. At the same time, Paul Prudhomme made Louisiana ingredients better known to mainstream diners. Boiled crawfish became popular as part of Houston's 1980s Cajun food fad.
As the demand grew, the wild crawfish supply was no longer sufficient to satisfy demand. Soon Texas and Louisiana rice farmers started growing crawfish in their rice fields. Crawfish tails were also imported from Asia.
The Cajun food frenzy eventually subsided, but the mudbugs never went away. In fact, spicy boiled crawfish became a Houston obsession. In the spring of 2008, some Bayou City restaurants are selling over 5,000 pounds of crawfish a week.
Why have crawfish become so popular in Houston? I asked Gossen.
"Because you eat them with your hands," he said. "Probably outside on the porch with some cold beer. You get all messy — and you lose your inhibitions."
The story of the Cyrus Blanchard family of Bayou Lafourche appears beside the front door of Swampy's Cajun Shack as well as on the restaurant's Web site, www.swampyscajunshack.com. "Some of the recipes that we use in preparing your meal have been handed down to us by our relatives from one generation to another," the sign says.
At lunchtime one day, we stopped by Swampy's for some more crawfish. We also sampled a couple of the lunch specials. One taste of Swampy's terrible chicken and sausage jambalaya convinced me that there was something wrong with the Blanchard family's recipes. Jambalaya is a slow-cooked rice dish I like to think of as Cajun risotto. Swampy's jambalaya tasted more like par-boiled rice mixed with some sausage, chicken chunks and tomato sauce. Their shrimp creole also tasted thrown together.
That day we met Swampy's owner, a sixtysomething aging hippie with long gray hair and three earrings. No, he wasn't from Louisiana — he was from Philadelphia, he told us. And his name wasn't Blanchard; it was Bob Ginsburg. So what about the Cyrus Blanchard story by the front door?
"I made it up," said Ginsburg. There is no Cyrus Blanchard. But there really is a Blanchard family — they run swamp tours in Cajun Country. Ginsburg said he asked them for permission to borrow their name, and they thought it was pretty funny.
Ginsburg is a Houston bar scene veteran. He used to own several Richard Head's (a.k.a. Dick Head's) locations. After he sold "Dick Head's, he opened Swampy's Cajun Shack in Katy in November of 2006. Ginsburg wanted to open a bar, but the owner of the shopping center wanted a Cajun restaurant, so they compromised.
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
At lunchtime that Tuesday, there were a dozen people in the bar at Swampy's and only four in the dining room. Judging by the cloud of smoke, I'd guess that part of the appeal of the place is Katy's lack of a smoking ordinance.
Crawfish lovers who plan their schedules around mudbug parties this time of the year will want to put Swampy's on the calendar. There's crawfish and live music on the patio at Magnolia Grill on Tuesdays. There's the crawfish eating contest at Mardi Gras on Durham on Wednesday, April 16. And then there's Swampy's in Katy, which has $3.50-a-pound crawfish and live music on the patio every Friday and Saturday night.
It seems odd to recommend a lackluster restaurant like Swampy's, but I love the place. You just have to realize that the best joint for boiled crawfish is not always the best place to order dinner.
If you want great Louisiana-style cooking, go to Brennan's. But if you're looking for a place to eat cheap crawfish, drink beer, smoke cigarettes and sing along to Freddy Fender tunes at the top of your lungs, you can hardly do better than Swampy's.