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‘Ugly Delicious’ Tackles a Southern Shellfish Rivalry in ‘Shrimp & Crawfish’

David Chang and his pals eat their way through New Orleans, Houston, and Ho Chi Minh City in this seafood-centric episode of Netflix’s food show

Netflix

On the “shrimp & crawfish” episode of Ugly Delicious, David Chang and his roster of guest chefs discuss the Gulf Coast’s favorite shellfish — and boy, is there a lot to chew over. New Orleans vs. Houston. Tradition vs. change. Cajun vs. Vietnamese. Chang wants to prepare these crustaceans via methods that will allow for optimal deliciousness, but he’s frustrated by the fact that in deep-rooted food cultures, that idea is trumped by “the way it’s always been done.”

In both Houston and New Orleans, cities with large Vietnamese populations, crawfish is boiled, which baffles Chang since steaming or stir-frying would leave the meat with better flavor. In Houston, Vietnamese seasoning and garlic butter is applied after the boil, a style called Viet-Cajun; in the Big Easy, the flavors are traditional Cajun, and they’re all applied during the cooking process. Despite Chang’s insistence, no one in New Orleans is interested in preparing their crawfish any other way. “Oh yeah, you get the flavor when you lick your fingers” seems to be a popular taunt about the supposedly inferior product. This micro-conflict leads into a broader conversation about acceptance.

Netflix

Take crawfish and shrimp. Both are beloved by Gulf Coast eaters, but the latter makes for much bigger business. It’s easy to eat shrimp. They’re readily available with peels, heads, and tails removed in grocery stores everywhere, and they’re ubiquitous enough to be featured on fast-food menus. Crawfish, on the other hand, take a little more work. One has to crack through that tough shell for a small morsel of meat. And for someone who isn’t familiar with them, they might look a little funny. The Gulf shrimp industry dwarfs its crawfish counterpart because shrimp are easier to accept elsewhere in America.

If embracing different shellfish can be tough for some folks, imagine the challenge of embracing different people. Vietnamese refugees made their way to the Gulf Coast after the Vietnam War in the ’70s. They took to shrimp and crawfish boats in their new home, and pushback from white fishermen was so bad that the Ku Klux Klan got involved. Vietnamese culture is embraced by people throughout the region now, but back then, it took time for locals in coastal Louisiana and Texas to get used to their new neighbors.

Chang’s philosophy — “who cares about tradition, let’s just make it delicious” — might not be easily accepted at face value. But the climactic scene of this episode proves he’s onto something. In the parking lot of celebrated Houston restaurant Underbelly, a crowd gathers for smoked whole hog seasoned with fish sauce and Vietnamese spices. The meat is pulled and served on lettuce wraps. Viet-Cajun crawfish is served too. None of it makes sense in a “this is how it’s supposed to be done” sort of way, but it all looks delicious.

Sidekicks and special guests

• Josh Martinez, a server at Galatoire’s in New Orleans
• Todd Lively, owner of the Three Legged Dog in New Orleans
• Luke Mandola Sr., “Louisiana traditionalist” and owner of Ragin’ Cajun restaurant in Houston
• Justin Yu, chef/owner of Theodore Rex in Houston
• Trong Nguyen, chef/owner of Crawfish and Noodles in Houston
• Chris Shepherd, chef/owner of Underbelly in Houston
• Alison Cook, Houston Chronicle restaurant critic
• Georgette Dang, co-owner of Cajun Corner in New Orleans
• Tommy Tran, co-owner of Cajun Corner in New Orleans
• Fuchsia Dunlop, Chinese food historian and author of numerous books including Land of Fish and Rice and Every Grain of Rice
• Koji Namiki San, shrimp vendor at Tsukiji Fish Market in Tokyo
• Johnny Tran, shrimper and restaurant owner in Louisiana
• Nikki Tran, chef/owner of Cau Ba Quan in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
• Al Le, chef/owner of Nam Giao in Houston

Restaurants in this episode

Galatoire’s in New Orleans
Three Legged Dog Tavern in New Orleans
Underbelly in Houston
Cali Sandwiches in Houston
Oxheart in Houston (now closed)
• Cajun Corner in New Orleans
Crawfish & Noodles in Houston
• Cau Ba Quan in Ho Chi Minh City
• Nam Giao in Houston

The best lines

“For me, it’s always trying to find another angle. I have to do it. I’m totally befuddled that you’re like, ‘No, I’m never going to try anything new ever again.’” — David Chang on traditional crawfish boils in New Orleans

“Most cities have sandwich shops. We have banh mi shops.” — Chris Shepherd on the prevalence of Vietnamese cuisine in Houston

“I don’t think that [New Orleans residents] are ready for the fusion, because crawfish here is just a staple food on its own. It shouldn’t be changed. It should be eaten the same way that it’s always been made.” — Georgette Dang on why Cajun Corner doesn’t serve Viet-Cajun crawfish

“How did Vietnamese food come to be? Someone merged together some French and some Southeast Asian food. Vietnamese food is probably the most classic fusion food, and greatest success story as a fusion food, of the past hundred years.” — Chang

“People that only eat chicken will also only eat shrimp, because it’s a protein that’s easily acceptable. It’s not really aggressive.” — Shepherd on why the Gulf shrimp industry is bigger than crawfish

“As shrimping is not highly regulated, the numbers are decreasing every year. I’m worried if there will still be enough shrimp in the next 20 years time.” — Koji Namiki San on shrimp sustainability

“I feel really sad about the future of this, but the selfish, awful person in me is like, I’m going to eat this while it’s still around.” — Chang on shrimp sustainability

“When it comes to food, people don’t really think about politics, honestly.” — Trong Nguyen on conservative people in Houston eating at restaurants owned by Muslim immigrants

“Has shrimp cocktail set us back because it’s become this iconic image of what shrimp needs to be?” — Chang

“Why the Vietnamese in Houston or Louisiana like crawfish is because they’re live, and in Vietnam, they eat live shrimp. You eat a lot of live stuff, not frozen. The first time I had crawfish in Houston, I thought it was very familiar to me. It’s not something that I grew up with, but there is some Vietnamese part to it.” — Nikki Tran

“Vietnamese food becomes Viet-Cajun. Viet-Cajun goes back to Vietnam as Viejun.” — Chang, on the process that led to Tran opening a Cajun-influenced restaurant in Vietnam

“I want to bring Vietnamese food to the public, to say thanks to Americans, to say thanks to America, who gave us the opportunity here.” — Al Le on why he doesn’t charge much more for his unique labor-intensive food

“I think fusion is when you’re talking about things that are forced. That’s painful. Fusing bones together, fusing things together, that’s not an easy thing. This is just natural. It’s an easy progression, and it’s surviving and maintaining and living in a beautiful harmony. This is people coming together as a whole” — Shepherd on the Vietnamese- and Cajun-influenced cuisine of Houston


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