Crazy About Crawfish: From Vietnam to Louisiana to Seattle

Crawfish House first 4185When Hiep Ngo left his parents and seven siblings in Saigon as a teenager in 1989, he never imagined he’d someday be cooking up crawfish in his very own restaurant.

“I was one of the last boat people,” he reminisces. Ngo says his auntie sponsored him to come live with her in a small parish just outside of New Orleans. There were many Vietnamese people in the area, as the Gulf Coast felt a bit like home to them. Auntie was married to a Caucasian man, so while he still had a Vietnamese community, he also gained exposure to a cultural mix.

Ultimately tired of the Louisiana lifestyle, Ngo, like others in that Vietnamese community, made his way to Seattle. Happy, but missing Cajun country cuisine, they’d get together for backyard boils. Back then, it was legal to ship live crawfish to Washington state, so people used their Louisiana contacts to get good deals. And everyone had their own recipe when hosting a boil. Flavors were fundamentally the same, Ngo says, though “some people would make it spicier and spicier to piss people off, but all in good fun.”

While in school, Ngo got his first job—at the Japanese restaurant Nikko, on the outskirts of the International District at Rainier and King Streets. (It would later relocate downtown to the Westin Hotel.) Starting from the bottom as a dishwasher, he worked his way up doing various prep tasks and eventually making tempura, a skill which would soon come in handy.

After Nikko, a joint restaurant venture failed when Ngo’s business partner fled suddenly, leaving him with a challenge of how to make his investment work. Inside his White Center building, he tossed around a few ideas, but kept returning to one: crawfish. “It’s a food we Vietnamese miss,” he says, adding “It’s a food I know…how to get it, how to deal with it, and how to cook it.”

Turns out Ngo knew, but didn’t know completely. Crawfish would be the central concept, but it took him 10 days trying to figure out the formula for the restaurant, including a week to come up with the menu. Even the crawfish took time, as Ngo learned its nuances on the fly. “It took me three days just to figure out the boil, like what to put in it, what to do with the crawfish after the boil, and how to make the sauces,” he recalls. “As I had no training, I had to eyeball the food and keep testing it out on friends before officially opening.” Finally satisfied, Crawfish House came to be in 2011.

This Vietnamese chef in the Pacific Northwest says “I’m keeping the boils Cajun-style.” He describes a two-step process. First is the actual boil, done with Cajun seasoning, and maybe a bit more citrus than they use in Louisiana. After that, in an “Asian twist”, he cooks the shellfish in a wok, adding in garlic, butter, “secret seasoning,” customer choice of sauce, and chili pepper to the desired spice level. The menu suggests one to five, all cayenne-based, but you can ask for higher heat. Habanero gets the level to six or seven, ghost chili gets to 10, Carolina Reaper gets to 20, and then there’s house-extracted habanero oil for anyone seeking an even higher, sadistic spice level.

The crawfish—complete with an ear of corn, a sausage link, and perhaps a potato—come to the table in a bag, where the server cuts it open and spills the contents onto butcher paper. There’s a little cup of powdered seasoning (again secret) plus lime to squeeze onto the seasoning for dipping. The house sauce has garlic, butter, and “special spices”; the tango sauce adds tamarind for a more tangy experience, and may be the most Vietnamese flavor you’ll find on the entire menu—which also includes étouffées, po boys, and Ngo’s delicately fried seafood and sides like fries and pickles.

Crawfish is one of many seafood options for the boils. It’s the most popular order, followed by crab and shrimp. At first, about 80 percent of the customers were Vietnamese, many from Louisiana or with connections there. Now that number is about 60 percent as the diversity of White Center reflects itself more and more in the restaurant. Interestingly, Ngo says the majority of customers are women, as “they love seafood and can eat a lot of it, whereas men think peeling shells is too much work.”

The business itself is a lot of work. It might seem strange that service at Crawfish House starts at 2pm, but that’s because Ngo typically goes to the airport at lunchtime to get the day’s catch—which must come parcooked to meet stricter laws. When Louisiana crawfish is out of season, he taps sources in other locations, such as Lake Tahoe. And during the summer months, the restaurant usually offers live local crawfish, larger and some say tastier.

Ngo is at Crawfish House seven days per week, working both the kitchen and the floor. He’s proud of his success, and attributes it to his staff, speaking fondly of them and treating them like family. At the same time, he looks forward to a first trip back to Vietnam since leaving there at age 15. Ngo misses his family, who he says love crawfish too—and who surely would be proud of him.

Originally published on EthnicSeattle.com on 8/23/16.

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