Viet Cajun crawfish mashes up international flavors for a uniquely Houston dish

When you think of crawfish, you probably think of backyard boils, done the Cajun way.

But in the Bayou City, there's another way. Houston is home to Viet-style crawfish, and it's full of flavors that celebrate Houston's international population.

"We use lemongrass, and a lot of spices to mimic a tom yum flavor. Vietnamese crawfish is known for the sauce on the outside," Chef Tony Nguyen explains.

Nguyen ladles out three different varieties of Asian-inspired crawfish at Saigon House in Midtown Houston. It's one of the only establishments inside Loop 610 to serve "Viet Style" or "Viet Cajun" crawfish.

This saucy dish was born here in the Bayou City, a product of Houston's diverse immigrant culture.

"We've got one of the largest Vietnamese populations in the country, and just like a lot of cultures in Houston, we want to make the food our own," self-professed crawfish connoisseur Matt Marcus explains.

Marcus hosts his own crawfish boils at 8th Wonder Brewery in East Downtown, and he's been enjoying Viet-Cajun style crawfish since the dish made its first appearance in Houston about a decade ago.

"I think this should be called Houston style crawfish," Marcus says.

That's because Viet-Cajun crawfish has its roots in Houston. Immigrants from Vietnam embraced traditional Cajun boiled and seasoned crawfish, but gave the dish a twist by adding a buttery sauce on the outside.

In Southeast Asia, rich, flavorful sauces of butter, garlic, citrus, and lemongrass are commonly added to shellfish dishes such as crab and shrimp. Nguyen remembers his own mother and father, who emigrated from Vietnam in 1989, serving crawfish seasoned with lime juice.

"That was one of my fondest memories as a child growing up," Nguyen reminisces.

Tony is keeping his family tradition, adding citrus, spices, onions, butter and garlic, to the sauce he calls "Saigon Heat." Another popular sauce, "H-town Bang" combines cayenne pepper, garlic, butter, and cilantro. The results may be messy, but worth it, to get every drop of this uniquely Houston flavor.

"I don't suck the heads normally, but these, I don't mind," customer Kim Middleton laughs.

"Seeing that experience of people enjoying your food, something that you made, it's a great feeling," Nguyen says.

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