After the fall of Saigon and South Vietnam in 1975 and on into the 1980s, the United States welcomed three waves of Vietnamese immigrants seeking refuge and a place to start anew in cities across the country. Today, it is still home to the largest Vietnamese population in the world, outside of Vietnam. While the largest group settled in southern California, Houston was a natural fit for many with its familiar sub-tropical climate and proximity to water that enabled newcomers to continue involvement in the seafood trades.
“Houston has always been one of the centers of Vietnamese culture in America and it has really been since that first wave,” says Dr. Robert Buzzcano, professor of history and expert on the Vietnam War at the University of Houston. “You have the huge Vietnamese markets and well known spots like Kim Son and Mai’s. Around here, it’s just accepted as one of those parts of our culture and our cuisine that we take for granted. You might ask ‘You want to go out for Vietnamese?’You never would have said that 40 years ago and now no one would think twice about it.”
Many of the immigrants who didn’t head to Galveston or Kemah to work on the water set down roots in what is now considered Midtown, near Louisiana and Milam streets, in a community then known as Little Saigon. In the ensuing decades, the population of Houston’s sprawling metropolitan area became home to the country’s third-largest population of Vietnamese immigrants, or more than 81,000 people. For perspective, Houston’s 2016 population of 6.3 million people includes more than 1.4 million immigrants of all nationalities, making it the most diverse city in the country.
Eventually, the local Vietnamese community shifted its hub to the west side of town along bustling Bellaire Boulevard in the city’s Asiatown district. Wherever you are, though, excellent Vietnamese restaurants can be found all over Houston. More than 40 years after the first immigrants made their home in Space City, the blending of traditional Vietnamese flavor with ingredients from the nearby Gulf make for one of the most delicious expressions of Houston’s culinary identity: Vietnamese-Cajun crawfish.
Digging into a pile of boiled crawfish on a cool spring afternoon, bucket of beer at arm’s reach and the sounds of Zydeco drifting on the breeze is a hell of a way to spend a few hours in southeast Texas. But that’s not the only way to enjoy good mudbugs —or, depending on who you ask, even the best. Across town, locals are ordering up mounds of crustaceans coated in garlic butter or tossed in ginger, lemongrass, scallions and other “less traditional” additions.
Thanks to the easy pairing of Vietnamese traditions with Cajun flavors, the resulting “Viet-Cajun” cuisine is fast becoming one of Houston’s most sought after fusions. While crawfish are not indigenous to Vietnam, the unavoidable French influences that came with the country’s occupation are similar to those that inspire the cuisine of the Gulf Coast. Pair that with the proximity of new immigrants to their Cajun neighbors, and the culinary merger was virtually inevitable.
Not only are crawfish boils boasting makeovers (or upgrades, depending on whom you ask), but mainstays like pho, fried rice, crab and shrimp are also finding new neighbors in terms of seasonings and Asian ingredients. The blend is not as surprising as one might think given that both cuisines rely heavily on seafood, carbs (in the form of rice, noodles or bread) and heat with bold flavor through a variety of chiles, spices and seasonings.
It’s not entirely clear just when the first Viet-Cajun concept opened for business, but the trend has been going strong in Houston for at least 15 years – the earliest mention of popular shops like Cajun Corner (now closed), Lucky Number 9 and Crawfish and Beignet we could find was published in 2002 but surely the origins began much earlier, even if those kitchens weren’t open to the public but were instead tucked away inside the kitchens of mothers and aunts across the city.
Just as the history is somewhat vague, the exact definition of Viet-Cajun cuisine varies from establishment to establishment, with each cook and owner developing his or her own take on the final result. As is the case in many kitchens, sauce recipes are closely guarded secrets and even something as relatively simple sounding as “garlic butter” may contain upwards of 15 or more ingredients ranging from the obvious inclusions to tamarind, habanero peppers and roasted onions. Likewise, it’s difficult to pinpoint one set of defining characteristics that signify Viet-Cajun cuisine though bold flavors are pretty much a guarantee.
Trong Nguyen of Crawfish and Noodles says that when he opened in 2008, there were few if any other options for the distinctive flavors of Viet-Cajun crawfish. While Cajun Corner and Boiling Crab (an import from California) did exist, their focus was more on traditional Cajun boils with New Orleans spices. From the beginning, he wanted to introduce the combination of Vietnamese flavors to Cajun dishes starting with crawfish, crab, shrimp and turkey next and moving to crawfish pho and fried rice later.
Further, he says that it was his combination of dishes that caught the eye of the local press, thus making the term Viet-Cajun a common descriptor for the new fusion cuisine. Nguyen moved to Houston in 1988 and draws on his prior years as a marketing executive working in food and beverage at casinos in Louisiana and Las Vegas to maintain a tight ship at his single location, leading a strong team of front and back-of-the-house staff preparing and serving some of the freshest food in town. “We are one of the pioneers in the market of the Vietnamese community,” he says, adding that he thought it would be popular but did not expect the following it currently enjoys.
In his mind, Cajun cuisine and Vietnamese cuisine complement each other because of their ability to downplay each other’s stronger flavors while highlighting subtler tones. For example, the rich butter of Vietnamese cooking counteracts some of the powdery spice of Cajun cooking. In order to retain the level of Cajun flavors that the local palate demands, however, the final combination needs to be 60% Cajun seasoning and 40% Vietnamese, he says.
Nguyen immerses his crawfish and other seafood in a homemade broth filled with a secret blend of seasonings before tossing the cooked critters in either a rich garlic butter sauce or his new “gingergrass” variation that lends a sweet and earthy flavor for those seeking the a less intense kick. Elsewhere on the menu, crawfish adds Gulf flair to pho and fried rice.
Just up the street at Wild Cajun, owner Lee Ngo and his siblings, who immigrated from Vietnam with their parents in 1980, offer a familiar yet technically different experience. The crawfish here is boiled in a signature Cajun spice, which allows the flavors to soak into the meat before the crawfish are tossed in a bath of garlicky, spice-infused butter. The recipe that Ngo uses now took more than two years of tinkering with flavors to perfect, and is currently his restaurant’s top seller.
Minson Ngo, owner of local franchise LA Crawfish, represents a younger generation of US-born Vietnamese-Americans who are following in the footsteps of their parents and, in his case, his aunts and uncles. Taking inspiration from his uncle Lee, who owns Wild Cajun, Ngo graduated from the University of Houston and worked in hotels before an opportunity to open a restaurant inside 99 Ranch Market became available. Ngo jumped at the chance to get into the business for himself, and LA Crawfish debuted in 2011.
The fusion, to him, just makes sense. Still, he acknowledges that not everyone is an immediate fan. “When I first started doing crawfish even at Wild Cajun, we had some people say ‘Hey I’m from Louisiana I know what crawfish is,’ he says. “Some of them didn’t really like the garlic butter style, preferring to have the crawfish seasoned on the inside. I say it’s the best of both worlds – why can’t you have well-seasoned crawfish on the inside and sauce on the outside for double the flavor punch?”
Ngo also adds crawfish to cheesy crawfish rolls, a local favorite inspired by a dish at Thai Gourmet. Also on offer are crawfish empanadas, and the restaurant’s famous, “life-changing” (according to its fans) crawfish pho. For this dish, a beef pho broth prepared with a base of beef bone, 5 star anise, cinnamon sticks and other traditional elements get a kick from Cajun seasoning and, it goes without saying, crawfish.
The fusion between Cajun and Vietnamese flavors is immensely popular in Houston, evidenced by the 50 bowls (on average) of pho sold each day at LA Crawfish and countless bags of butter-drenched crawfish ordered at Viet-Cajun restaurants across the city.
According to Ngo, the future is fusion, and over time the concept of a “pure” cuisine will be lost, but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. “I think it’s just natural as our cultures mix in the US and it becomes more of a melting pot that more cultures and the cuisines are going to mix and influence each other,” he says.