Here come the Asian Cajuns

Younger generation of Vietnamese-Americans have tossed their own flavors into the boil and created a craze for the crawfish

By Denise Taylor
Globe Correspondent / May 5, 2010

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THE MOTTO OF Brother’s Crawfish might as well be “Snap, crack, slurp, and repeat.’’ On a Friday night at this new Dorchester restaurant, every table is nearly elbow deep in a messy heap of red crustaceans. Hands pluck crawfish from shared baskets, snap off and crack open the tiny lobster-like tails, and tug out the tender white tail meat. Slurping follows. Like good Cajuns, diners raise the crawfish heads to their mouths and — with gusto — suck out the flavorful “fat.’’

This could easily be a crawfish boil in Cajun country, until you notice the spring rolls, fried rice, and coconut drinks. The 25-seat spot is the first to bring the growing Viet-Cajun food craze to Boston: Cajun cooking and crawfish served with a Vietnamese twist.

The cuisine has roots in Louisiana, where Vietnamese immigrants who had been fishermen settled. “The delta of south Louisiana is very much like the Mekong Delta geographically and natural history-wise,’’ says Jerald Horst, a fisheries expert and coauthor of “The Louisiana Seafood Bible: Crawfish.’’ As they prospered in the fishing industry, the Vietnamese took land jobs, many as seafood retailers. “Thirty-five years ago when I began my career in the [Louisiana] seafood industry, the seafood market owners were about 90 percent Sicilian. Now it’s over 90 percent Vietnamese,’’ says Horst. “And, of course, if they’re going to sell seafood here, they gotta sell crawfish. It’s our flagship food, and it segued right into their culture.’’

Then in the early 2000s, a young Louisiana woman named Quon Nguyen moved to Houston and opened a crawfish restaurant in the city’s Little Saigon area. An alternative to pho, the big bowls of traditional steaming soup, crawfish caught on. Copycat restaurants opened in Texas and California and soon Vietnamese cooks began to change the old Cajun recipe. “People started to get innovative to stand out,’’ says Hoa Pham, whose family owns the Houston restaurant Crawfish and Beignets.

Dozens more Viet-Cajun crawfish restaurants have since sprung up, and more recently fanned out along the entire West Coast, on to Las Vegas, east to Washington, Atlanta, and now Boston. Louisiana Crawfish Co., a supplier, has had inquiries from restaurants in the works in Denver, Chicago, St. Louis, and New York. “It’s spreading to the East Coast and the center of the country now,’’ says David McGraw, company president.

Owners Long and Tuan Le opened Brother’s Crawfish last month, not far from where they were raised in Dorchester. “We started buying our own crawfish and doing boils at home,’’ says Long Le, who developed a taste for crawfish while visiting New Orleans. “Everybody loved them so much, we thought we might as well open a restaurant.’’

“Anywhere there is a large Asian-Vietnamese community, that’s where they pop up,’’ says Dada Ngo, who owns the Boiling Crab, a nine-restaurant Viet-Cajun chain in Texas and Southern California. “Big groups like to gather around food, and crawfish is casual enough that it can be fun. I think that really resonated with younger crowds. I mean, we have a cult following now.’’ Fans created a Facebook page to commiserate about lines at the Boiling Crab.

The draw is fresh Louisiana crawfish (also known as crayfish), which are farmed year round, but are bigger and juicier from January to June. Wild crawfish are harvested roughly March to June.

The Les have theirs shipped in by overnight air because the freshwater shellfish perish quickly. Early on a rain-soaked morning, Long Le weaves his Toyota Tundra through Boston traffic to FedEx. He heaves 80-pound boxes of iced crawfish into his pickup. Someone has labeled the plain cardboard cases “Cajun Container.’’ “I won’t buy my crawfish from China,’’ says Le. “It’s not as good.’’

Viet-Cajun fuses Cajun crawfish recipes with a Vietnamese penchant for seasoning whole shellfish and then dunking the meat in dipping sauces. Just as Cajun cooks do, Viet-Cajun restaurants boil live crawfish with each cook’s secret seasonings. In Cajun country, cooks toss in a homemade or favorite boil mix such as Zatarain’s, which is rich with mustard seed, coriander, bay leaf, dill, allspice, and a lot of cayenne. Then fresh flavors — onion, garlic, celery, lemon, even mushrooms — are dropped in. After a brief bubble, sausage, corn, and potatoes are added, cooked, and removed.

Once the crawfish soak up this tasty brew, they are scooped out of the pot and served. Many eat them plain to best savor the cooking juices with the springy tail meat, which recalls lobster but is sweeter and, if cooked right, more succulent. Some whip up spicy sauces on the side. But the Viet-Cajun way brings in new tastes. That might be ginger, lime, lemongrass, or the salty fish sauce nuoc mam. Le starts with Cajun boil spices, and amps up the flavor with celery, onion, sugar, pineapple and orange juices, and halved oranges with their rind, “to get that whole citrus taste,’’ he says.

The next inspiration is the toss that goes onto the hot, cooked shellfish. Viet-Cajun restaurants offer diners a choice of coatings. Most start with butter and blend in flavors running from a fiery sheen of Creole seasoning and Thai chili peppers, to garlic butter, lemon pepper, or lime and sugar. Brother’s offers three choices: Cajun Calm, which is pure butter; Oriental Express, butter with a mixture of garlic and spring onions; and Asian Fusion, butter and enough cayenne to clear the sinuses of a small village. “People are crazy. Some really want it so spicy they start sweating. They’ll be telling me, This is not hot enough, while my eyes are burning just from making the crawfish,’’ says Le. “That’s why we give them choices.’’

It’s a grand, greasy mess to peel a batch of crustaceans (dress as if planning to paint a house). But the extra flavor is worth donning a plastic bib for. Dipping sauces reel in even more flavor. Brother’s goes with a lip-searingly hot, tangy, vinegar-based dip, and on request servers hand out limes, mayo, salt, cayenne, ketchup, and black pepper. Elsewhere dips run from the do-it-yourself mayo mix made popular in Houston to tamarind and fish sauce blends to lemon butter or a simple trio of lime, salt, and pepper. “The sauce is what has really become addicting I think,’’ says Ngo. “It’s an Asian thing to really like to dip.’’

Crawfish remains the signature dish, but this is a new cuisine, with no firm rules, evolving in real time. While some expand the menu with seafood and straight-up Louisiana specialties like gumbo, others are hopscotching recipes through both traditions. Crawfish pho, Cajun lo mein, and crawfish fried rice are turning up. Others serve an odd mash-up of Cajun, Southern, and Vietnamese dishes: cornbread ’n’ pho or banh mi with a side of red beans and rice.

Still, most Viet-Cajun places choose seafood-themed names such as Crab Hut or Crawdad King. “We thought about naming the restaurant Asian Cajun, but we didn’t want everyone else to think this restaurant isn’t for them too,’’ says Tuan Le, the younger brother.

Brother’s Crawfish serves crawfish daily and blue crab boils only on weekends. The Les will teach newcomers how to peel and eat either. Both shellfish are sold by the pound (current market price is $8.95). A heaping 1-to-2-pound bowlful can serve one hungry diner. Crispy fried spring rolls made by Long’s wife, Michelle, offer a savory starter. Light fried rice, made with finely chopped Spam, is a mouth-soothing side. A few more Vietnamese dishes, New England fried seafood, and tart frozen yogurt round out the menu.

Meanwhile, demand for Viet-Cajun continues to grow. “We’ve been bombarded with requests to franchise. We’ve even had offers to open Boiling Crabs in Saudi Arabia, India, and Indonesia,’’ says Ngo.

The latest twist to the crawfish trend might be in Los Angeles. Last month, The Boiling Shrimp, the first Thai-Cajun establishment, opened. And recently, the California Viet-Cajun chain SJ Crawfish opened in Saigon. The company is marketing its crawfish as American-style “land lobster.’’ So the cuisine has come full circle.

Here, the Le brothers dream of franchising. Restaurants are in their blood. They grew up helping in their mother’s former Dorchester restaurant Pho Bac. Tuan studied culinary arts at Newbury College, another brother owns Mike’s Bahn Mi, one of Boston’s best Vietnamese sandwich shops, which a sister, Christine, runs. Another sister, Lisa, waits tables at Brother’s Crawfish.

“We get a lot of people who come in looking for New Orleans crawfish and looking for the owner and when they see us they’re surprised,’’ says Tuan.

“But when they taste the crawfish, they know we get it right.’’

Brother’s Crawfish, 272 Adams St., Dorchester. 617-265-1100,

Safe from spill
While there is great concern for the impact of the Gulf Coast oil spill on saltwater shellfish and fin fish, there is no expectation that it will affect Louisiana crawfish. Farmed Louisiana crawfish is raised inland in freshwater with 99 percent of farms more than 10 miles from the Gulf. Wild crawfish also live in freshwater six to 100 miles inland.

It's a heady treat
Crawfish connoisseurs know the best part of the shellfish is the rich, creamy, golden “fat’’ inside the head. Though it may lurk inside a humble country critter, it dissolves in a quiver of flavor on the tongue like uni or foie gras. It’s not actually fat, but an organ called the hepatopancreas. As the Cajuns like to say, be sure to “suck the head.’’