A crimson crawfish as big as a langoustine dangled from the hand of my friend Jenny Wang on a recent afternoon at Crawfish & Noodles. “Look at the size of this thing!” she crowed triumphantly.
Jenny, the founder and chief instigator of the Houston Chowhounds eating society, is more crawfish-obsessed than any person I know. In Houston, that’s saying something. I’ve learned I can set my crawfish-season clock a-ticking the moment Jenny first takes to Twitter in early winter to announce her cravings and speculate about such vital matters as size, shell condition and price per pound.
Her current favorite crawfish spot is Crawfish & Noodles, a Vietnamese establishment in Saigon Plaza, a grandiose strip mall on Bellaire near Wilcrest in southwest Houston’s sprawling New Chinatown. After several visits, I can see why she loves it: the buttery, superbly savory crawfish boil here, when ordered in its “regular spicy” version, delivers depth and subtlety along with garlicked red-pepper heat. I could drink it like soup if it were just a little less hot. Its current of oniony sweetness comes from a delicious rubble of reconstituted onion bits, which cling to the crawfish shells and offer a bit of firm resilience to the tooth.
Just lately, in the final flush of our Gulf Coast crawfish season (it should last another six weeks or so), the mudbugs are big and fat and — as cooked by this particular kitchen — as pearly and sweet as miniature lobsters. They were priced at $6.99 per pound over the past weekend, and I went through a lot of them while watching a Jedi Crawfish Master at work.
Jenny’s long, French-manicured nails look like improbable crawfish tools. But she scorns the clear plastic gloves the more fastidious customers don to dismantle their crawfish, purchasing a pair at a quarter each right off the menu. “I like to have an intimate relationship with my food,” Jenny scoffed, squinting fiercely at a dismembered crawfish head as she poked a finger inside to extract the yummy, lurid-looking fat.
She pinches and peels the crawfish tails with ferocious efficiency, sucking the heads and casting the shells into metal bowls with a resounding clunk. Sometimes she dips the tails into a cup of mayonnaise she orders up from the waiters; other times, they get a dunking in a cup of delicate drawn butter she makes sure to order on the side.
That’s the thing about eating crawfish: once you get the basic mechanics down, the rest is highly personal. To suck or not to suck the heads; to dig or not to dig out the fat; to dip or not to dip. Personally, I like to concoct a dip from the fresh lime segments the restaurant supplies, but I ask for a cup of salt and pepper to mix with the citrus rather than the cups of boiling spices they offer. Some folks stick to ketchup, or mix up a mayonnaise seasoned with whatever is at hand — a spoonful of crawfish boil broth from the bottom of the bowl works for me.
Right now, like Jenny, I can’t think of a place I’d rather eat crawfish than Crawfish and Noodles. I love the way the regular spicy bath balances at the elusive sweet spot between spicy-hot and subtle; I appreciate the lack of chemical-tasting dry spices or grit in the mix. (An “extra spicy” version here, however, was so gritty with undissolved spices, and so unrelentingly hot, that we gave up trying to eat it and called for “regular spicy” reinforcements. Be warned.)
To slake the fire, I order a Tsing Tao or a Tiger Beer, or perhaps a soda chanh, Vietnamese lemonade spritzed with soda water and served without ceremony in a tall Styrofoam cup.
When I’m in full crawfish mode, I tend to ignore the rest of the menu. That would be a mistake at Crawfish & Noodles, where the kitchen is surprisingly adept at certain dishes. We’re at the beginning of blue-crab season here on the Gulf Coast, and the stir-fried salt-and-pepper crabs piled up on a platter here are wonderful indeed, the crab bodies packed with sweet meat to be extracted by hand, or with chopsticks; the shells filmed with a slightly sweet fried coating that begs licking off. And the jumble of softened scallion, garlic, ginger and sweet red pepper on top sets the crab meat off beautifully.
I was shocked at how good the fish-sauce-marinated chicken wings were, their sweet-glazed crunch cut by the salty nuoc mam to great effect. A waiter tried to talk me out of them when I showed up with an Anglo friend, in favor of the very good Asian Garlic Honey wings. But I’m glad I insisted on the nuoc mam version. I’d put them up there with Xuco Xicana’s Mexican wings as the best in the city.
A crawfish joint is not where I’d expect to find the best bo luc lac I’ve eaten in years, the beef tender and touched by smoky ‘wok magic,’ the soft whole shallot and caramelized onion served with it good enough to eat all by themselves. Wrap the beef in a lettuce leaf, dip it into a do-it-your-self potion of lime juice, salt and pepper, and you’ll turn into a believer. If the kitchen would just roast the whole garlic cloves to a truly soft state, the dish would be nearly perfect.
Basil-fried rice here has an almost Thai jauntiness, thanks to long slivers of hot serrano peppers in the mix; and the chewy rice texture is spot on. But the true sleeper dish on the Crawfish & Noodles menu is the soft, shreddy turkey neck in a maniacally hot broth, served with a nest of wilted onion and cilantro on top, and a French roll at the side for impromptu poboy/French dip construction. It’s Vietnamese soul food of a high order.
The only dish that left me unconvinced was grilled oysters on the half shell that tasted oddly flat, without the exuberance promised by their topping of garlic, ginger and scallion. When I drizzled on some lime-salt-and-pepper dip, though, the oysters awoke to their potential. Just a little tweaking and they’d be classic Houston stuff.
Service at Crawfish & Noodles has been unfailingly cheerful and friendly on my visits. But once your food lands on the table, you’re pretty much on your own — so be prepared to flag down a server for drink refills, a couple more pounds of crawfish and the like. It’s a small price to pay for a vivid dining experience.
Afterward, be sure to trek to the other end of Saigon Plaza for a cup of chicory café au lait and an order of beignets from Chez Beignets. That double whammy makes Crawfish & Noodles shine even brighter.
>Crawfish & Noodles
10613 Bellaire Blvd