HOUSTON – Crawfish & Noodles saw a van with dozens of sacks of live lobsters from Louisiana in early March. The restaurant in a neighborhood called Asiatown is probably Houston’s most famous supplier of Viet Cajun lobster. The style expands the taste profile of traditional cooked lobsters from South Louisiana with modified spice blends and a variant developed by Vietnamese-American chefs: a generous bath in a seasoned butter sauce.
While Crawfish & Noodles serves its signature dish all year round, the restaurant is busiest in spring, when lobsters are in season. Given that Trong Nguyen (below), the restaurant’s owner and chef, had lost a lot of business during the shutdown at the start of the pandemic last year, he feared the winter storms that devastated Texas in February – and the lobster harvest in Louisiana delayed -. would cause similar damage this spring.
“I need the high season to get through the slow season,” he said. “We didn’t understand last year.”
When the delivery arrived, Mr Nguyen was confident that his connections with lobster suppliers in Louisiana’s Cajun country, about 230 miles east of his restaurant, would help save the spring of 2021.
Restaurateurs across the country are counting on one year of rampant virus losses. In Asiatown, owners have also faced crippling winter weather and a surge in anti-Asian sentiment. For Mr. Nguyen, a lot of fresh lobster is a welcome cause for optimism.
“These are known as Class A Select jumbo lobsters,” he said, placing his hand on the three yellow mesh bags of live crustaceans on the back of the truck.
The February frost iced over lobster ponds in southwest Louisiana and southeast Texas, temporarily disrupting a harvest that traditionally continues to grow to meet increased demand during Lent. In early March, the supply lines had not fully normalized, said Nguyen, and the supply of selected lobsters was all the more valuable.
“This species is currently not available to anyone due to freezing,” he said.
Nicholas Yxtos (below) carried one of the 36-pound bags into the kitchen and poured it onto a counter. He plucked and tossed the dead shellfish from the pile and shoved the rest into a sink full of water to soak.
Miguel Cotty, one of the cooks, was already preparing a lot of lobster for the dinner that was just started. The lobsters are cooked for three to seven minutes, depending on their size and batch volume.
Mr. Cotty (bottom left) shook a flavored spice mixture over a three-pound order and tossed it into a large metal bowl. Then he poured several ladles of orange-red butter sauce over the lobster and tossed it a little more. He scooped the now shiny lobster into a smaller metal bowl for serving and covered it with three pieces of corn on the cob dusted with spices.
Mr. Nguyen, 51, was a teenager when his family moved to Houston from Vietnam. He first tried whole cooked crawfish while working in a casino in Lake Charles, La. It was classic Louisiana lobster cooking with a salty, cayenne pepper kick. “It was something I liked to eat because it’s spicy,” he said.
Viet Cajun lobster appeared in Houston in the early 2000s. Mr. Nguyen opened Crawfish & Noodles with relatives in 2008 and has since changed the recipe for the spice mix and sauce several times. For special occasions, he said he occasionally uses a spice blend that includes ginger and lemongrass, a combination often found in Viet Cajun lobster spots on the Gulf Coast and in California, where the style is also popular. But garlic, onion, cayenne pepper, lemon pepper, and butter are the dominant flavors in his home recipe.
Jim Gossen, a retired local restaurateur and seafood distributor, recalls trying the buttered lobster for the first time at Crawfish & Noodles not long after they opened.
“They were really good and really, really, really rich,” said 72-year-old Gossen, who helped bring traditional cooked lobster to the Houston market in the early 1980s. “I don’t have any evidence, but I’d say they sell more lobsters in Houston than they do in Louisiana today.”
Mr Nguyen said early customers made fun of his restaurant’s name and routinely patronizes his crawfish. “They say, ‘That’s not how you cook the lobsters,” he said. “I would say,’ I don’t cook lobsters from Louisiana. It’s Vietnamese lobsters. My style is different. ‘”
By 2011, when Mr. Nguyen Crawfish & Noodles relocated to its current location, the restaurant was well on its way to attracting an audience. His wife, Alexa Nguyen, is the managing director. Later that year, the couple plan to open a second location for Crawfish & Noodles at the Houston Farmers Market, where their son Cory will work with Mr. Nguyen as head chef.
“Is there a place in all of Chinatown on Bellaire Boulevard more popular than Trong Nguyen’s Mecca for Viet Cajun lobster?” Alison Cook, the restaurant critic for The Houston Chronicle, wrote in a 2019 review, “I doubt it.” Last year, Mr. Nguyen was a finalist for the James Beard Foundation Award for Best Chef: Texas (although the foundation has chosen not to announce the winners of the Cooking and Dining Awards).
“We have a phenomenal number of tourists coming from all over the place,” said Nguyen. “People bring suitcases straight from the airport.”
He was now at a banquet in the dining room. It was the first day the Texas state covid restrictions were lifted completely and his restaurant was almost full. It was a welcome sight, especially given the declining business Asian restaurants experienced during the pandemic due to unfounded, racist fears that they were more likely to spread Covid.
Some customers, said Mr. Nguyen, “even told us they didn’t want to come to our area. They came back now. “
He wore a glove to try one of his recently cooked lobsters, tore off a tail and bit the severed head, then sucked. It’s the best way to try the spices that are mixed in with the butter and juices from the shellfish, he said.
At a next table, Andrew Duong (above right) ate his second meal at Crawfish & Noodles in a week. Mr. Duong, 27, was visiting from Chicago, where he said he runs a restaurant that also specializes in Viet Cajun lobster. It’s a measure of how far the style has spread across the Gulf Coast, parts of Georgia, and California in recent years.
“Chicago is booming,” he said. “But it’s not like down here, where you see lobsters everywhere.”
Dymond Simpson (her hands above) and her husband Alexander (below) are regulars at Crawfish & Noodles. Houston residents both have Louisiana family ties and were raised on Louisiana-style lobsters. You tried Mr. Nguyen’s lobster for the first time in 2015.
“At first I thought there was too much stuff on it,” said Ms. Simpson. “Then it grew on me.”
The couple, who dined with their three young children, come to Crawfish & Noodles once a month “even when it’s not lobster season,” said Mr Simpson. He especially appreciates that the restaurant cooks lobsters to order so they arrive hot, a departure from many Louisiana-style places where lobsters are often sold at room temperature.
Ms. Simpson said her children are already avid fans. “You love these lobsters,” she said. “We don’t make pizza or hot dogs for birthday parties. We make lobster. “