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La Crawfish pays tribute to Houston’s melting pot of flavors

Our smiling co-conspirator behind the cash register handed us a wadded plastic sheet. We shuffled away, spread it over a wooden table and awaited our prey. Their vermilion bodies arrived in a plastic bag breathing steam and coated on the inside with a glistening mixture of butter and spice. My partner dumped the bright pile of crawfish onto the table, and we went to work, turning our pristine setting into a crustacean crime scene. It felt like we had entered an episode of “Dexter.”

So, this is part of the Houston experience? After a visit to the Austin franchisee of Houston-based La Crawfish, I can dig it.

Stifling humidity. Sprawl. AstroTurf. Enron. Space City deserves some of the derisive side-eye it gets. But the wonderfully diverse city is also home to world-class performing and visual arts, Hakeem Olajuwon and an enthralling variety of global cuisine.

Simply for bringing Vietnamese crawfish to the world, the Bayou City deserves forgiveness for at least some of its sins.

Austin may have mashed-up cowboy and hippie culture in the 1970s, but the 21st century boiling pot that is Houston gave us the hybridization of Vietnamese and Cajun food. Some debate the exact birthplace of the Vietnamese crawfish craze, but Houston is widely credited as the springboard for the phenomenon. With its large Vietnamese population and proximity to Louisiana, the Gulf Coast hub makes perfect sense for this kind of culinary cross-pollination.

Crawfish, of course, have long been a staple along the Gulf Coast. Boiled in a mixture of garlic and onion powder, paprika and a whole spice rack of goodness, the mudbugs are quintessential Cajun finger food with the kind of popular appeal on which entire festivals can be built.

No strangers to seafood, or the French influence on cooking, Vietnamese immigrants upped the ante on the tradition. They added aromatics like lemongrass and ginger to the boil, infusing the supple meat with fragrant flavor. Then they went one better, tossing the crawfish in bags filled with red-pepper-spiced garlic butter that clings to the bag as you dump your meal onto the table. A small pool of butter remains in the bag, perfect for dipping the meat, or your fingers. And you thought regular crawfish were messy. You can add potatoes (50 cents), corn (79 cents) and andouille sausage ($1.49) for a nod to tradition.

Yes, crawfish take work, but with heightened and electrified flavor profiles like these, the pulling, snapping, twisting and tweezering of meat from the crimson shells is worth the effort. A pound at La Crawfish at Northcross Mall will run you $7.49, and you can substitute that steaming bag of France-meets-Vietnam-meets-Louisiana sauce with a pungent hot and sour or amplified Cajun-style sauce — but the garlic butter is the star. The butter is so popular, the restaurant offers a butter-pumping station alongside a rack of supplementary cayenne pepper, salt and pepper. There are even bottles of hoisin, tartar and cocktail sauce for the other dishes. Boring palates need not apply.

La Crawfish also boils and tosses blue crab ($6.99), snow crab ($13.99) and king crab ($19.99). The thorny king crab legs provided a challenge, and we returned to our co-conspirator for an adequate weapon to pry the excellent downy meat from the crab’s jointed clutches. The delicate work made for the meal’s best dish.

You can get your crawfix in myriad manifestations. Want fried tails for dipping? They do that for $6.99. Shelled meat strewn throughout a tangle of shiny garlic noodles topped with a sentinel crawfish and fried onions ($8.99)? You won’t be disappointed. How about cheesy crawfish rolls that wed China and Louisiana for bar food perfect for beer sipping? Also, check.

La Crawfish plays with Asian inspiration outside Vietnam, with a trio of massive Gulf oysters ($12.99/dozen) colored with Thai green chili and fish sauce, Korean kimchi, and Japanese ponzu and nori strips (our favorite of the bunch). The oysters came out in a foil baking pan, which didn’t come off as some cutesy faux-folksy aesthetic play. It just seemed to make sense — like the paper boat for the tangy and crispy Hong Kong-style tamarind-glazed chicken wings (one of 10 flavors offered at $8.99/dozen), plastic bag for the crawfish, plastic foam tray for crawfish curry and ceramic bowl for pho.

The curious dishware is utilitarian, like the sports-bar space, but not offensive, like Skip Bayless and Stephen A. Smith yapping from the multiple TVs hanging throughout the restaurant.

La Crawfish’s culinary influences untangle themselves on two parts of the menu, one devoted to fried seafood (shrimp, tilapia, softshell crab) po-boys and baskets, the other to several versions of the Vietnamese noodle soup pho. The La Special pho with bristly beef tendon, pale brisket and soft meatballs ($7.99) carried whispers of that restorative dish’s anise and ginger glow but lacked the depth that comes with time.

The pho didn’t distinguish itself among the multitude of similar options in town, but the piquant and rich shellfish have carved a unique niche in a dining scene full of newcomers clawing for attention. I can’t wait to return to the scene of the crime.

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