It's the time of year when Houstonians' fancies turn to thoughts of where to get decent-sized crawfish. This early in the season, the pursuit of mudbugs is a dicey business, fraught with modest triumph and sudden tragedy. I'd put my recent crawfish-eating session at LA Crawfish , a no-frills counter inside the 99 Ranch Market's Asian food court, in the modest triumph category.
Emphasis on the modest. While the $5.99 a pound crawfish last weekend were small, they were seasoned in a pleasant, low-keyed fashion--"medium spicy" entailed a lot of garlic and butter with just a warming tinge of cayenne-- and nicely cooked.
A friend who had ordered crawfish there earlier that afternoon told me later that hers were "mushy" and crushed, as if they had come from the bottom of the pot. I had no such complaints.
Granted that the work-to-meat ratio is less favorable when the crawfish are small, but it had been so many months since I tasted boiled crawfish that I couldn't bring myself to care. And while the savory seasoning rubble in the bottom of their plastic serving bag wasn't as head-spinning as the blend at Crawfish & Noodles , my current favorite, it was good enough that I will gladly return for a rerun later in the season, when the crawfish are bigger.
Indeed, I scarfed up my bagful in short order and spent the rest of the afternoon exulting in the perfume trailing from my fingertips, that unmistakable Vietnamese crawfish-boil scent of buttery garlic and cayenne and swamp water. Eventually I had to wash my hands, and I lost it, but it was fun while the aroma hung on for those five or six hours.
My whole trip to LA Crawfish was fun, in fact, except for the search for a space in the perpetually jam-packed 99 Ranch parking lot. Once inside the entrance, look for LA Crawfish immediately on your right..
You step up to the counter to order from the limited menu, which offers boiled crawfish in varying permutations of spiciness, along with a slate of chicken wings and (somewhat improbably) a range of pho, the noodle soups so beloved of our citizenry. I guess if you've got your big pots of crawfish boiling in back, you might as well have your big pots of pho broth boiling as well.
There's even a Crawfish Pho on the lineup, which I've never encountered in Houston before, although it was bound to happen sooner or later as the Vietnamese crawfish genre works through its classic phase and enters the baroque. Those who have sampled this newfangled pho say that the broth is a spicy one, and that shells-on crawfish inhabit the bowl. It's on my list for a future visit.
So are the chicken wings here. The Spicy Garlic wing I tried was wonderfully crisp and bursting with juice, and it tasted even better when I used it to swab up some of my precious crawfish-seasoning sludge from the bottom of the bag. It was not on the level of the Fish Sauce Wings at Crawfish & Noodles, of course--so few wings are!--but it was a serious wing and not to be sniffed at.
Overall, the place is bright and clean and amusingly decorated, with shiny aluminum wainscoting and the requisite fishermen's netting holding red plastic crawfish aloft. Two big flatscreens provide sports entertainment, and you can supplement the restaurant's small line of sodas and bottled water by ducking into the cavernous 99 Ranch Market for a cold six-pack of beer, or even a bottle of wine.
The festivities take place on long picnic-style tables covered with thin plastic sheeting that rolls right up so you can bus your table efficiently for the next comers. Sitting inside the low corral that separates the tables from the rest of the store complex, you get a great view of shoppers coming and going, without ever getting the sense that you're eating in a grocery store. It's a peculiarly 21st-century sidewalk cafe experience, and I kept thinking I'd love to take William Gibson, the near-future-prescient science fiction author, to have a couple of pounds of crawfish here.
I'd probably have to prompt him that part of the self-service routine here is the customization of your preferred crawfish and wing dipping sauces at the condiment bar. Everything necessary is on hand, from ketchup and mayonnaise dispensers to a big bin of fresh limes and squeeze bottles of Sriracha. My preferred sauce for everything these days is a Vietnamese classic of lime juice seasoned with salt and pepper from the dry-condiments buffet. There are cayenne mixes as well for those who like it hotter.
One of my party wished aloud for a baguette to sop up the juices at some point in our feasting. With the inimitable 99 Ranch bakery just yards away, we could have supplied ourselves with a little forethought. I'm fairly sure you could even Bring Your Own Baguette.
Afterwards, if you can move, it is tempting to roam the vast aisles of 99 Ranch, scooping up liter bottles of unsweetened jasmine iced tea or some choice baby bok choy. Now if somebody would just put in a Beard Papa stand--or a beignet outlet--the LA Crawfish experience would be complete.
(LA Crawfish , 1005 Blalock @ I-10 in the 99 Ranch Market, 713-461-8808. Daily 10 a.m.--9:30 p.m.)