There are rituals to perform, props to ready, before you begin your meal at Red Crawfish. Wash your hands, for one, and enjoy the whisper of your dried fingertips rubbing together, because you won't hear it again until the end of the night. Take a couple of lime wedges and squeeze them into the tiny plastic pot of salt and black pepper next to your plate. Ready your napkins (you might bring a few from home, just in case). Clear a space on the table for the plastic bag of boiled Cajun crawfish the waiter is about to haul to your table.
Red Crawfish, in the Little Saigon section of the Tenderloin, and the new SJ Crawfish in the Outer Sunset are the city's two Vietnamese-Cajun crawfish houses, a restaurant trend more viral than an OK Go video. Although this culinary mashup sounds improbable, it began in the Vietnamese-American communities along the Gulf Coast, where small restaurants started offering the same Cajun-spiced crawfish boils their white and black neighbors did. In the early part of the last decade, Gulf Coast expats who moved westward to California imported the trend, and now crawfish restaurants have appeared in every sizeable Vietnamese community in the southern and western states. An L-shaped crawdad belt stretches from Seattle (where I first encountered one) to Orlando. The South Bay is particularly crawfish crazed. Two years ago, Metro critic Stett Holbrook counted half a dozen on the Peninsula, and that was before the country's best-known chain, Boiling Crab, set up its sixth branch in San Jose.
Red Crawfish, which I enjoyed, and SJ Crawfish, which I didn't, both offer much larger menus than they need to. The cooks may be prepared to fry up fish and chips or braise oxtail, but their customers have only one meal in mind. It involves a cluster of cold Heinekens, the game on TV, and the methodical dismembering of hundreds of freshwater crustaceans. It's an activity meal as enjoyable as Korean barbecue or Taiwanese hot pot, one that leaves you sweaty and bloated, butter-slicked, and red-mouthed.
Several months ago SJ Crawfish, a San Jose–based chain of four restaurants (including one in Ho Chi Minh City), took over the space occupied by another failed Cajun-Vietnamese restaurant named CoCo Crawfish. Redecorate? Nah. Nets are suspended around the dingy, sky-blue room like oversized cobwebs, and in the back, a stairway leads to a forlorn mezzanine, no place for a live human. There are bathrooms, but you might not want to visit them before you eat.
In addition to the crawfish, which is offered "LA Cajun Style" or tossed in garlic butter ($10.99 a pound), SJ's menu lists deep-fried shrimp and calamari (both $8.99), steamed clams with lemongrass ($10.99 a pound), and something called a lobster ball ($8.99).
Through a series of pauses and significant glances worthy of Christopher Walken, our waiter steered us away from the lobster ball (hey, I was curious) and garlic-butter sauce and toward the house specialty, the Cajun-style crawfish. However, it took him 45 minutes to discover the kitchen had run out of all the other dishes we tried to order. "We've been busy," he said, indicating the empty room, where indeed four or five paper-covered tables were crusted in debris. Instead, he brought us limp, spice-dusted Cajun fries ($3.99) and a bowl of gumbo ($5.99). No cook in Lake Charles would recognize the pale, vegetable-filled soup, which my tablemate described as a cross between hot-and-sour soup and gumbo, but it was good — light and tangy, more vegetable than animal, the bouquet of open clams blooming on top tender and sweet.
Finally, he carried out a clear plastic bag sloshing with a couple of pounds of stop-sign-colored crustaceans floating in a ruddy, steaming mix of broth and melted butter. The feasting began. We would pluck a three-inch-long crawfish out of the bag and let it cool long enough to touch. Then we'd yank the tail out from the thorax, pinch it lengthwise to crack the shell, and peel off the hard exoskeleton. What little of SJ's broth that tinged the meat and covered our hands seemed more butter than anything, spicy enough to set our lips abuzz but not particularly fragrant. Nevertheless, the pink curls of meat we unwrapped were fresh and sweet. I soon stuck to the tails and gave up sucking the juice out of the heads when I noticed how black the bottom of the shells were: mud on the mudbug.
During the day, Red Crawfish sells only Vietnamese and Chinese dishes like bun rieu (crab-noodle soup, $7.99) and cashew-nut shrimp ($8.50). I confess: They didn't interest me in the slightest. I visited the restaurant at night, entering a garlic- and chile-perfumed steam bath, the narrow room packed with tables covered in butcher paper and discarded shells. Half the boisterous crowd was there to cheer on the Lakers. Their faces grew crawfish-colored as the meal passed.
Like SJ, Red Crawfish sells crawfish, shrimp, mussels, and clams — Dungeness crab in season, too — by the pound, with a choice of spice levels for the boiled Cajun-style seafood or served simply steamed for people afraid of fire. Many of the tables were splitting one of the six combos, which are designed for everyone from one ($19.99) to 10 people ($149.99), and flank the crustaceans with garlic bread, fried wings, fried catfish, and dessert.
We ordered the $39.99 combo, with a bright papaya salad on the side ($7.95) to have a sweetly vegetal hiatus from the spice. The combo included undercooked sweet potato fries, grocery-store garlic bread, and doughy beignets with store-bought ice cream for dessert. A plate of garlic noodles was decent, and, when I began peeling the crawfish over it so the dripping sauce coated the pasta, extraordinary. There is only one reason to come to Red Crawfish — crawfish — and it's reason enough.
We've reached the end of the early summer season, the time of year when the crawdads are tinier, their carapaces bonier. (Incidentally, according to the Louisiana Crawfish Promotion and Research Board, 90 percent of all crawfish sold in the United States come from Louisiana. Since the state's 111,000 acres of crawfish ponds are all freshwater, they're untouched by the Gulf oil spill.)
Despite missing peak crawfish season, Red Crawfish's signature dish comes boiled in a spice-riddled broth, then tossed in garlic butter. Garlic fumes rolled off the crawfish as we peeled them, and the meat underneath was cooked perfectly, all juice and pop. The Vietnamese influence? The lime-pepper dipping sauce I swabbed each piece of tail in. The same grainy DIY mixture that comes with shaking beef, the citrus dip sent up a flare of acid and salt, a spark that seemed to ignite the flames of the cayenne that soon burned my tongue and cheeks. And once I unfurled a few of the tails and found the shells clean, I greeted each mudbug with a sharp slurp of its head, catching the few drops of concentrated crawfish juice and sweet butter that pooled in the cavity. The crustaceans may have been clean, but after an hour of peeling and sucking, my hands were shiny enough to reflect the lights overhead, and the white butcher paper beneath my plate had become an abstract expressionist masterpiece. The scene looked disgusting. It couldn't have made me any more content.