Southeast Crustacean Vietnamese chefs take on the crawfish---and transform Cajun cooking

Craw Talent: Vo’s restaurant turns out delicious decapods.
Charles Steck

Our waitress has plopped a 2-pound bag of crawfish on the table and rolled down its clear plastic edges, which releases a cloud of pungent steam that instantly transports me back to Houston. Technically, I know that my wife, Carrie, is sitting across from me—occasionally I hear something that sounds like muffled exclamations coming from her. But right now I’m deep inside my own head, recalling that giant red crawfish glowering from the rooftop of the original Ragin Cajun in H-town, where I used to peel away one hard shell after another to reveal those little nubbins of tail meat inside.

It’s a harmless reverie, of course, but our waitress keeps pulling me back to reality with every awkward inquiry. It’s not her fault. Carrie and I are the anomalies at this seafood shack. Practically everyone else here speaks Vietnamese fluently, for one obvious reason: The Sea Side Crab House is in the Eden Center, that Vietnamese vortex in Falls Church.

But something else has snapped me out of my nostalgia. It’s the taste of those mudbugs. They’re hot and sweet, as you’d expect, but there’s a depth of flavor that I can’t pinpoint. I want to attribute it to fish sauce, but the guy behind the counter swore that he prepares his crawfish Louisiana-style, without a single concession to his Vietnamese customers. I pressed him on the matter, too. The way he was talking, I imagined he had Emeril tethered to an industrial pot in the kitchen, a bag of crawfish seasonings in one hand and a paddle in the other.

The idea that Vietnamese would adopt a Cajun specialty wholesale is not unprecedented. In the years since I left Houston—why does that sound like a country song waiting to happen?—Vietnamese restaurateurs have opened a number of Cajun restaurants there, focusing primarily on boiled crawfish. My buddy Robb Walsh, restaurant critic for the Houston Press, chronicled the trend in his “The Future of Fusion” series in 2002. He made one observation that struck me: “The truth is that the owners of these restaurants are simply serving Vietnamese and Cajun foods side by side, the fusion occurring incrementally and mostly by accident,” Walsh wrote, “crawfish finding their way over to the fried rice.”

The menu at Sea Side conforms almost exactly to Walsh’s description. The Gulf Coast dishes—Alabama crawfish, Texas blue crabs, Cajun shrimp, and Louisiana oysters—dominate the right-hand side of the fold; the left-hand side features a list of wok items, including a number of seafood dishes tossed with garlic and scallions. On the surface, it would seem that an imaginary 17th parallel divides the Vietnamese food from the Cajun. And yet…I still couldn’t forget the taste of those initial crawdaddies.

My next visit to Sea Side occurred late on a Tuesday. It was nearly 10 p.m., and the patio was still buzzing with families, young couples, and a group of men huddled over their platter of raw oysters, smoking cigarette after cigarette as if they were deep inside a shadowy Saigon bar. The same waitress worked my table, and I’m sad to say my Vietnamese had not improved since my first visit. This led to a rather farcical exchange over the price of blue crabs. I kept asking her how much a half dozen cost; she kept pointing to the blue crab illustration on the menu, as if I needed a refresher course on the crustacean’s morphology. The waitress then pulled in a busboy to help. They huddled together, spoke in Vietnamese, and finally scribbled a number on an order ticket: 37.5. I was incredulous. $37.50 for six large jimmies?

I was so shocked, the waitress called in reinforcements. A man named Tom stopped by my table and patiently explained the prices: $70 for 12 jumbos; $50 for a dozen larges. Between Hurricane Dolly and the Chesapeake’s dying population, blue crab prices have skyrocketed, Tom told me. He also said I could just order two, if I liked, and I did. One tasted creamy, fresh, and delicious. The other was a ropey wad of white flesh.

Tom, it turns out, is Tom Vo, one of the owners of Sea Side. Vo and his business partner, Danny Nguyen, were childhood friends who grew up in the Falls Church/Fairfax area. When the old buds decided to open Sea Side, they teamed up with one of Nguyen’s associates, Phan Nguyen (no relation), whose family had already launched a handful of crawfish houses in the South. The three partners knew, though, that if they tried the same concept in NoVa, it would have to be different from the ones in Texas or Alabama. It would have to include a taste of Vietnam.

“They do it more Cajun-style,” Vo says about the Southern crawfish houses run by Vietnamese-Americans. It seems the Cajun influence is so strong down South, even among those in the Vietnamese community, no one wants to mess with tradition. In the Eden Center, the only traditions anyone cares about come from the East, not the South.

What does that mean for the mudbugs at Sea Side? It means that these specimens, before they ever reach boiling water, are marinated in garlic, ginger, scallions, tangerine juice, lime juice, and (you guessed it) fish sauce, that great umami agent of the East. From there, the crawdaddies follow a more traditional Louisiana path, a hard boil with that blast of cayenne we all associate with the shellfish. All told, the recipe makes for the best-tasting crawfish I’ve had, anywhere, even without the array of tableside condiments that the Vietnamese so love. (Think pho but for crawfish.)

Sea Side’s Vietnamese approach leads to other surprises, some more pleasing than others. When my order of six raw oysters arrived on the half shell—sans their liquor and topped with ice cubes, which were melting their tasteless water onto my bivalves—I figured it was amateur hour at the Eden Center. But Vo claims that Vietnamese don’t like “all the dirt and the sand and the flavor from the original shell,” so Sea Side thoroughly cleans its oysters to remove the grit—and flavor. If you like a taste of the sea, just tell someone; they’ll leave the liquor in.

My favorite example of fusion, however, is probably not even a blend of cultures at all. It’s a dish of North Carolina soft-shell crab, which is battered, deep-fried, and quickly tossed in a blazing-hot wok with sugar, ginger, scallions, onions, jalapeños, and garlic. These sweet, spicy clumps of crustacean are then served on a bed of dressed lettuce and garnished with cooling sprigs of cilantro, the whole thing so tasty, crunchy, and complex that I start to salivate just by thinking about it again. Now, if you’re myopically American and refuse to believe that the Vietnamese have a tradition of deep-frying softies, you might call this an East-Coast-meets-Southeast-Asia dish. I’d prefer to call it what it really is: A dish in which the Vietnamese school us in how to best prepare one of own signature ingredients.

Caption: Eatery tips? Food pursuits? Send suggestions to hungry@washingtoncitypaper.com. Or call (202) 332-2100, x 466.

Sea Side Crab House, 6799 Wilson Blvd., Falls Church, (703) 241-2722.

Our Readers Say

I enjoyed your article, thanks. This was my second time eating cajun crawfish and thoughly enjoyed it. Tom, the manager, walked us thru the proper way of eating the crawdads. We also ordered a dozen female crabs for $30. It was worth every bit as we carefully digested the crab carcass. The waitress suggested 2 dishes of crab fried rice and deep fried jumbo shrimp which was out of this world. Need to go back for more.
I've eaten at Sea Side Crab house and I gotta agree with the author, the crawfish are yummy, and the soft shell crab dish is awesome. But I also ordered the raw oysters (seems we ordered all the same things, but since the menu is small, I guess its no surprise) and mine didn't come with ice. Instead they came with yummy toppings of crispy dried fried onions, scallions, and cilantro, and perhaps some lime juice - it was a revelation! Sea Side is great!
If you love Garlic and seafood you will love this secret recipe. This video deconstructs the delicious garlic butter sauce that you find in Asian Fusion Crawfish houses!

Watch this video for the recipe.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RbU81n3WgN0

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