Already, Houstonians are in search of the best crawfish in town to get their fix, but many restaurant owners are saying this season will experience some delays. Midtown seafood restaurant Josephine’s will push back its plans to serve crawfish by at least a few weeks, and Crawfish Shack, a seasonal Crosby restaurant known for its spicy, saucy crawfish boils and laidback BYOB environment, posted on its Instagram that it would delay its January opening because its purveyors don’t have enough crawfish to supply its drive-thru yet.
“The catch is extremely low, and prices are very high,” Crawfish Shack owners wrote. “Our goal is always to provide our customers with an excellent quality product at a fair price. We also need a good supply in order to open. The farmers are really struggling this season with Mother Nature.”
Owners predict that with current conditions, crawfish could be $1.50 per crawfish, bringing costs to $16 to $18 per pound. Now, after two updates, Crawfish Shack plans to open on Wednesday, January 24 instead of January 10.
While some operators see mid-January or later as a delay for serving crawfish on restaurant menus, others say it’s right on time (or at least not far off) for the season. Marty Wadsworth, the owner of Texas-based restaurant Willie’s Grill and Icehouse, has been serving crawfish at his restaurants around the state for 25 years and is optimistic about the upcoming season.
“Crawfish season is our Super Bowl,” says Wadsworth, noting that Willie’s sold nearly 100,000 pounds of crawfish in the first half of 2023 year alone. The restaurant chain, which owns 20 outposts across Texas, is considered one of the first to serve crawfish locally, but the Southern culinary tradition exploded in Houston following the influx of Louisiana residents after Hurricane Katrina, resulting in more crawfish competition, he says. Crawfish is still Willie’s “bread and butter,” however, with the establishment selling tens of thousands of pounds every month during the season and experiencing a 20 percent increase in sales during the first half of the year.
Wadsworth says it’s standard for the season to start at the end of January or the beginning of February, with March and April serving as the “sweet spot” for consumption, when the bugs are more plentiful and the price per pound drops to its lowest point. Later in the season, the crawfish get larger, some reaching the size of a small lobster, Wadsworth says, but by Father’s Day or mid-June, the season ends. Then, the crawfish are too large and mature, with hardened shells that become too sharp and dangerous to deliver the traditional, pleasurable peel-and-eat experience.
Owners say that much of how successful a crawfish season is — and when it begins and ends — depends on the weather. Though crawfish can survive in various areas along the Gulf Coast, the swamps of Louisiana remain the gold star environment for crawfish. “They’re called mudbugs for a reason,” Wadsworth says. The crustaceans thrive and grow in mud and vegetation, and grow larger in the sunshine and warm weather, Wadsworth says.
Like most Houston establishments serving up craw daddies, Willie’s Ice House depends on multiple Louisiana suppliers and farmers who set traps during favorable weather, and since crawfish develop best in warmer weather, cold snaps — particularly ones that last more than three days — can offset the season and result in much smaller crawfish. January, thus, can be a make-it-or-break month, Wadsworth says.
Fortunately, for both crawfish and Louisiana farmers, the Pelican State hasn’t experienced any heavy floods or heavy rains in recent months, which can eliminate vegetation, giving crawfish little place to hide and grow, Wadsworth says. Recent weather has also been favorable, but some farmers and crawfish purveyors have reported that the past summer’s heat wave resulted in a hard off-season, with dry, hot weather that only worsened with the lack of rainfall and freshwater needed to keep the crawfish healthy, alive, and reproducing, says Lucas McKinney, head chef of Josephine’s in Houston’s Midtown.
As a result, the mud from May through July was often too dry for the crawfish to burrow down in, and many of them died or their growth was stunted. Now many farmers are waiting for the population to recover, but predictions of cold snaps in Louisiana this January also have some farmers worried and hesitant to spend money on bait, gas to run boats, and labor to check crawfish traps daily until conditions show improvement, McKinney says.
Some restaurants are adjusting their menus accordingly. McKinney says despite Josephine’s plans to go “full force” and offer boils daily starting by the end of January, the restaurant will now aim for mid-February. “There’s nothing we can really do to ensure that crawfish are going to be available or affordable enough for restaurants to offer it,” McKinney says. “Now, we’re kind of waiting for nature to take its course.”
McKinney says the later start date for crawfish will be a disappointment for many, especially since each year the demand seems to increase and the expectation for crawfish season to start earlier grows. This year’s possible delay could be a teachable moment, though, bringing to light the realities of sustainable seafood and “farm-to-table” cuisine and what farmers endure during the year. “They are the ones at liberty of Mother Nature along with oyster and redfish farmers and shrimp boats, and we’re at the liberty of their ecosystems and production. It’s all so important to get the knowledge out there,” he says.
Wadsworth expects that many Houstonians won’t be willing to wait long for crawfish and will flock to restaurants that can provide them as soon as they become available in January, even if that means they’re tiny in size and pricier by the pound. “Early in the season, we try to tell our guests that even though they’re flavorful, the [crawfish] are smaller than we’re used to. We typically don’t get to the Houstonian or Cajun-quality crawfish until about March,” he says. “But they say ‘I don’t care about the size.’ They need their crawfish.”
Check back on Eater Houston this January for a comprehensive update on where to get the best crawfish in the city. In the meantime, you can check out last year’s picks here.