One of my favorite culinary mash-ups of recent years is the Vietnamese-Chinese-Cajun crawfish boil served with rice or garlic noodles. Following the arc of families moving from Vietnam to New Orleans to Southern California to, finally, San Jose and San Francisco, mud bugs have taken a garlicky turn and shown up, of all places, in Little Saigon’s across the country.
Red Crawfish in San Francisco’s Tenderloin is the one closest and dearest to me, as I head over that way anytime I’m craving familiar, comforting flavors. Boiled crawfish is a new tradition among my peeps, but it’s one that I’m very happy to adopt, too.
Eating here is a dress-down, messy affair that requires friends with absolutely no pretensions about food. The red, steaming, spicy crawfish come out from the kitchen in pails and are plopped down on the paper-topped table inside plastic bags, rather than piled right on the table, to hold in all that the thick, rich broth.
I love very spicy food and found that the medium was just fine for me. If you’re hungry and a bit of a glutton, you could eat two pounds of crawfish with nothing else, but it’s definitely hard to resist popular side orders like batter-fried sweet potatoes, buttery garlic noodles, buttery garlic toast, or just plain rice. You can also order potatoes and corn on the cob, and they’ll throw them right in with the crawfish. If you don’t suck the heads (and the purists among us would insist that you do), you should at least order some garlic noodles or a bowl of rice for soaking up all the juicy goodness that spurts out of each one.
There are other entrees on the Red Crawfish’s menu — the usual suspects of Vietnamese fare dominates over the Cajun influence — but I haven’t yet strayed far from the namesake of the restaurant. The huge bowl of spicy seafood soup is definitely worth sharing, while next on my list is one of my favorite dishes, bun rieu, seafood and tomato-tinged broth served over rice noodles.
For the DIY folks, there’s also plenty of local crawfish harvested from the Sacramento Delta and from California’s rice fields. Although the Isleton Crawdad Festival was canceled last month, another victim of the recession, you can still pick up live mud bugs (more for the rest of us!) from Bob’s Bait Shop a.k.a. The Master Baiter. Located near the Sacramento Delta and the premier sources of live bait in the area, the shop also provides local crawfish for cooks picky about freshness. Be sure to call in advance, especially if you need more than 15 pounds. Check also with large Asian supermarkets near you, especially 99 Ranch Market, where crawfish can often be found crawling around live in the tanks.
Those of us who have no shame will even ask the server at Red Crawfish to leave all the shells on the table so that, at the end of the meal, we can bag them up, spices and all, to make a very tasty stock back at home. Add some Cajun trinity, some dark roux, stir in a little heavy cream and lots of dry sherry, pull out a blender and a mesh strainer — and you have a pot of mighty tasty soup.