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Serving up Asian-cajun crawfish

Quan Do, co-owner of Cajun Crawfish Credit: Hugo Kugiya

On the north side of downtown Biloxi, Miss., along the city’s Back Bay, the gas stations, filling stations, video stores, supply houses, and restaurants are owned by Vietnamese immigrants who settled along the Gulf Coast in the 1970s and 1980s to catch shrimp.

Gambling has supplanted shrimp as the economic engine of Biloxi. The wild shrimp fishery in the Gulf has ceded most of the market to shrimp farms in places like, ironically, Vietnam, Thailand, and China. Most of the shrimp we consume comes from farms in Asia.

The immigrants who fled Vietnam after the end of the war in 1975 dug in nonetheless and adapted, and now two and three generations of Vietnamese Americans call places like Biloxi, New Orleans, Port Arthur, and Houston home. (One of them, Anh Cao, an immigrant lawyer from New Orleans, became the first Vietnamese-American member of Congress two years ago. He represents a predominantly African-American district.)

It took little time for the newcomers to develop a taste for southern, coastal cooking. As a result, Cajun-style restaurants run by and catering to Vietnamese-Americans have become hugely popular in places like Houston and Orange County, Calif., where the majority of Vietnamese-Americans in the U.S. live. The trend has spread to places like Atlanta, and recently, Asian-Cajun has come to Seattle.

Last year, two Vietnamese-American cousins (one from Seattle, the other from Texas) opened the Crawfish King in Chinatown. The Crawfish Grill opened earlier this year next to the Great Wall Mall in Kent. And last month, the Do brothers opened The Cajun Crawfish on Martin Luther King Jr. Way South, near the Othello light rail station. Quan Do, who was born in Saigon but grew up in Seattle, first got the idea to open a Cajun restaurant in Seattle seven years ago when he was visiting a cousin in Los Angeles and noticed those kinds of eateries were everywhere — and they were all packed.

His cousin was connected to the Boiling Crab chain of Cajun seafood restaurants, which started in Orange County and is considered the biggest, most successful of its kind. It spawned imitators all over Southern California and served as an inspiration for the Dos.

“I thought, ‘We don’t have any in Seattle,’ but I didn’t have the opportunity to open a place until later,” said Quan Do, 33. Until this year, he sold cars at a Jeep-Dodge dealership in Kirkland. His younger brother Luan sold Toyotas in Burien.

It was the recession that finally motivated them to open The Cajun Crawfish. Car sales were slow. They weren’t making any money.

“We thought, we got to do something else,” said Quan, a self-taught cook, who is now training his brother to cook in the restaurant too. “We wanted to bring something new to the community.”

He hopes to indoctrinate Vietnamese-Americans in his neighborhood in the joys of Cajun seafood, and also entice the many African-Americans who live in this neighborhood of Thai, Chinese, Vietnamese, and African restaurants.

The main feature at The Cajun Crawfish is the crawfish, flown in daily from Louisiana. The first thing Quan does every day is to drive to the airport and pick up 100 pounds of live crawfish, which he serves in sauces of varying degrees of spiciness for $8.99 a pound. The crawfish is served alone or with extras like potatoes ($1), corn on the cob (50 cents), or sausage ($1.99).

The entire, steaming mess is brought out in a plastic bag. Customers eat right off the table, which is covered in butcher paper. Plastic bibs and a thick roll of paper towels — both highly necessary — are provided. The food is delicious, pungent, messy, and labor intensive. Shellfish is food for the patient. Here, it is served whole — heads, tails and all.

Quan uses no Asian spices or seasonings. He supplements a commercial mix of dry Cajun spices with rosemary, basil, bay leaves, garlic, cayenne, and orange peel, making it clear the food is not fusion. There is a statuette of Buddha next to a cardboard cutout of a crawfish, but otherwise the décor does not suggest Asian food. Fishing nets are hung from the ceiling, a convention among restaurants of this type. (The Crawfish King in Chinatown goes fully overboard on the nautical theme with buoys, seagulls, a dinghy, and life preservers.)

Fusion aside, the cuisines of the Gulf region and of Vietnam have similarities, the love of seafood served whole, the bright, sharp flavors, the love of garlic and spice. It is common for Vietnamese families to simply boil seafood and dip the meat into a paste of salt, pepper and lime juice. For them, the practice of sitting around a table, peeling and picking through shellfish, is a familiar and comforting ritual.

The menu at the Cajun Crawfish consists mostly of seafood in some form. Shrimp ($9.99 a pound), various types of crab ($11.99-$13.99/pound), snails ($9.99/pound), and clams ($8.99/pound) are all cooked in the same sauces (Cajun, garlic butter, lemon pepper, or a combination of all three called the “whole boom-bang!”) used to prepare the crawfish. You can get any of the sauces mild, hot, or very hot. As if the sauce was not enough, the seafood is also served with a dish of the dry, Cajun spice mix and lemon wedges, whose juice is mixed with the spices to form a paste.

The Cajun Crawfish also serves baskets deep fried catfish ($7.99), shrimp ($8.99), calamari ($7.99), soft-shell crab ($9.99) and frog legs ($8.99), a unique culinary habit the Vietnamese share with Southerners in the U.S.

The Cajun Crawfish does not serve po’ boys like the Crawfish Grill, or gumbo and jambalaya like the Crawfish King. The menu, Quan Do said, will likely grow to include more items but will be devoted to seafood.

The Cajun Crawfish is located on the ground floor of a twin, two-story strip mall. The King Plaza was built as two buildings on adjacent blocks, filled with everything a Vietnamese immigrant might need, jewelry, insurance, a mortgage broker, doctor, dentist, public laundry, bakery, deli, and grocery. There is a beauty school and another that trains nursing assistants. The offices of the Northwest Vietnamese Weekly News are here. So far, most of the Do’s customers are Vietnamese.

“This kind of food is new for them I think,” said Quan. “When we opened this place, I wanted to give the community something new.”

If you go: The Cajun Crawfish, 6951 Martin Luther King Jr. Way S., Suite 103, 206-432-9488. Open 11 am-10 pm Monday-Saturday, noon-9 pm Sunday.

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