Here, Eat This

Houston We Have Crawfish. Here's What You Want to Do With It.

Felisha working to get all of the flavor
Felisha working to get all of the flavor Photo by Doogie Roux

Folks we're deep in to crawfish season now. It's pretty obvious in Houston with chefs, cooks and whoever else setting up for it almost everyday. You find them at popups, cook offs, backyards and various establishments. A lot of things are happening when it comes to crawfish in Houston. Some good, some bad. I get that the Houston food scene is all mixed and eclectic with its own unique, blended style, but I didn't grow up seeing much of what I'm seeing here. Let's have a look at varying perspectives, dos and don'ts when it comes to crawfish.

click to enlarge A fresh batch of Viet-Cajun crawfish from Casian King - PHOTO BY DOOGIE ROUX
A fresh batch of Viet-Cajun crawfish from Casian King
Photo by Doogie Roux

It must be made known right away that yours truly is from Louisiana. The small town of Cheneyville to be exact. No, that doesn't make me an expert on crawfish, but I know a few things, and I've made some observations. Prior to my research, I was admittedly judgmental of any preparation or presentation method that strayed too far from what I grew up seeing my father or folks back home use. Most of the judgment, I kept it to myself. Rather than wildly bash anything unfamiliar and be seen as some crazed crawfish dude, I thought it best to take a more proper and respectable approach. One in which I opened my mind to understand varying methods and simply try new things. From here, I could process it all and offer up my findings from a less biased position.

click to enlarge Father of Doogie Roux, "Big Grip" and  Larry prepare fresh, boiled crawfish - PHOTO BY DOOGIE ROUX
Father of Doogie Roux, "Big Grip" and Larry prepare fresh, boiled crawfish
Photo by Doogie Roux

I heard about the Viet-Cajun crawfish a few years back, but I'd never dove into a good batch until recently. I do remember seeing them at a restaurant and thinking, "I'm not even going to bother trying that."  The best way to make anything less desirable to me is to hype it up. Well, I was missing out. Viet-Cajun crawfish were highlighted in Anthony Bourdain's Parts Unknown Houston episode and later in David Chang's documentary, Ugly Delicious. After this, I had numerous people mentioning the episodes to me and asking if I'd had this style of crawfish. Later, I was introduced to Tuan Tran of Casian King. I was finally about to get my first batch of Viet Cajun crawfish.

click to enlarge Tuan Tran of Casian King with a tray of Viet-Cajun crawfish - PHOTO BY DOOGIE ROUX
Tuan Tran of Casian King with a tray of Viet-Cajun crawfish
Photo by Doogie Roux

As I spoke with Tuan I gained a sense of comfort with the Viet-Cajun preparation method. I often find myself immediately wary of any method that seemingly puts flavor on crawfish rather than it being steamed or soaked into the meat of the crawfish. I watch the boil and noticed a fiery red color in the pot. I was amazed by this because I knew it was an indicator of good flavor. Tuan conveyed the garlic, citrus and lemongrass additions that go into the steaming and soaking part of the process. Much to my surprise, we were in agreement on the firm stance that flavor should be in in the crawfish, not on them. This method embodied just that. My mind was changed. There's so much more here than just the garlic bits you see on the Viet-Cajun crawfish. I had accepted this method of preparation. I got a tray with about 8 pounds of crawfish. I dove in, and my taste buds went crazy. My mind was blown.

Ramen Tatsu-ya introduces the crawfish-packed "Crawmen" soup - PHOTO BY CARLA GOMEZ
Ramen Tatsu-ya introduces the crawfish-packed "Crawmen" soup
Photo by Carla Gomez

The unbiased, less judgmental perspective is great. I'm more open to twists and fusions with crawfish. Thank you Casian King! The variations continue. Ramen Tatsu-Ya is serving up Crawmen. It's a soup comprised of crawfish, seafood miso, tonkotsu broth, andoullie wonton, and ajitama (marinated and seasoned half boiled egg), cayenne and smoked paprika. It's a perfect marriage of cultures and flavors you just won't find anywhere.
I support this. It's awesome. Then I go to a crawfish cook off. Chefs, cooks and dudes competing were sprinkling seasoning like Salt Bae and dumping all kinds of sauces onto the crawfish in serving trays just before they were carried away for consumption. People were all "Oooooh!" and "Ahhh!" To myself, I thought, "Really?" Does this grand performance and presentation really award the person working hard to peel that crawfish a flavorful experience. I'm going to have to say no. I don't support this.

click to enlarge What's going on here? - PHOTO BY DOOGIE ROUX
What's going on here?
Photo by Doogie Roux

The essence of crawfish flavorings happen during the boil, soak, steaming or cooler phases. Saucing them down just before you serve them up does no good for the person on the receiving end. This is not BBQ. My family has a special sauce from back home. It's like Cane's sauce, but better. It's mayo-based, and that's the only ingredient I'm allowed to tell you. We hand make it to dip individual, peeled crawfish bits in, but that's it. We don't pour this sauce all over the crawfish when they come out of the pot, serve it, and hope for the best.

click to enlarge A group enjoying crawfish at Cottonwood - PHOTO BY DOOGIE ROUX
A group enjoying crawfish at Cottonwood
Photo by Doogie Roux

At this point, with an open mind, I've tried new things and offered plenty of perspective. That being said, certain steps are absolutely necessary for a good, pleasant and flavorful crawfish experience. A ton of work goes into preparing, serving, peeling and eating. No one wants go through any of the above and be disappointed. Here is a set of dos and don'ts that I offer with the hope that anyone reading this will keep them in mind going forward.

click to enlarge Veggies are good for you, eat them with your crawfish - PHOTO BY DOOGIE ROUX
Veggies are good for you, eat them with your crawfish
Photo by Doogie Roux

- Do purge the crawfish and purge them well. Use plenty of salt! After that, rinse them well. No one wants doo doo in their crawfish. Also, you know that gritty feeling stuff you sometime finds when your chewing on a tail? That's dirt, grit and poop that remains when the batch isn't purged and cleaned well.

- Do eat the meat from the claws and elsewhere. Let nothing go to waste. Get your money's worth! Even on the smaller crawfish, you'll be surprised by how much meat is in the claws. Crawfish are pretty much baby lobsters.Take a similar consumption approach.
- Do suck the heads. For batches done right, there's a lot of flavor in there and you don't want to miss out. Also, bite the heads if you're into that. You'll get even more flavor. I't worth noting that during my research I found the heads of the Viet-Cajun crawfish to be the most flavorful.

- Do add plenty of corn, potatoes and other veggies to the boil. This is necessary for flavor and you can even keep those non meat eaters happy. Don't be afraid to get crazy. I heard of someone adding pineapple to the mix.

- Do add sausage, neck bones, or any other meat to the boil. Also be careful if you're adding other seafood or meats to the mix as you risk under or overcooking. While keeping the above in mind, variety is always good.

- Lastly, do enjoy an adult beverage of some sort when preparing and consuming crawfish. It's hard work. You deserve it.

click to enlarge Someone's not getting the full experience, please avoid this - PHOTO BY DOOGIE ROUX
Someone's not getting the full experience, please avoid this
Photo by Doogie Roux

- Don't eat crawfish with gloves. It's not a good look and you're slowing yourself down. So you have a cut on your hands, too bad. Toughen up. The flavor is worth the suffering. It's worth noting that I didn't see anyone eating crawfish with gloves until I came to Houston. Have you ever heard the phrase, "Finger lickin' good"? Well, do this and you pretty much render it invalid. Please don't.

- Don't assume that just because the crawfish is spicy, it will be good. Consider the flavor spectrum: spicy, salty, sweet, tangy etc and prepare to an tolerable, ideal taste for the majority. You've prepared a big batch that's so hot, no one can stand it. Congratulations, everyone hates you now.

- Don't add loads of boil seasoning and expect more spice or flavor. Someone says, "They're not spicy enough!" Okay, add spice using tabasco, cayenne, or jalepeƱos. Someone says, "They need more flavor!" Okay, add flavor using garlic, onions, or other flavordul veggies. Again add loads of boil seasoning. You're just making the batch saltier. Also don't allow someone to have small pile of this seasoning next to them to dip crawfish meat in. That's just wrong. Hopefully the batch isn't so bland that this thought crosses someone's mind.

- Don't put seasoning or sauce on the crawfish and expect them to all of a sudden have this amazing flavor that will blow people away. Get the foundation for your flavor in the pot and by adding veggies along with additional flavor during processes between boiling and serving. Sauce is okay for when someone wants to dip on their own, let them handle that part.

- Don't eat the straight ones! This is important! If you're new to this, it's an item you should really aim to keep in mind. Straight-tail crawfish were dead for who knows how long before the boil and are not safe to eat. Also, if the meat is mushy or crumbles when you peel, don't eat it. A good cook will remove the straight-tail crawfish before they batch is dropped, but some can be missed.

- Lastly, don't call them crayfish. Common and or acceptable aliases include: crawfish, crawdads and  mudbugs. Anything other than the above will get you side-eyes various looks of disgust.

click to enlarge She gets it. She really gets it. - PHOTO BY DOOGIE ROUX
She gets it. She really gets it.
Photo by Doogie Roux

Final thoughts: As a proud Cajun-Texan, I must say that the favorable variations of crawfish is an awesome outcome of Houston's diverse and lively culinary community. Sticking to tradition is good, but when it comes to any fusion or variation of traditional crawfish preparation, I won't knock it until I try it. However, you can put all the seasoning and sauce you want on the crawfish, but if that meat isn't clean and cooked proper with flavor worthy of the work done by those peeling it, take a different approach.

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