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Vietnamese Immigrants Carry on a Cajun Food Tradition

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Crawfish is awesome... My wife and I love it!! If you haven't ever tried it, you should!

Vietnamese Immigrants Carry on a Cajun Food Tradition

By JOHN T. EDGE

Published: April 27, 2010

HIEU PHAM serves about a ton of Louisiana crayfish each week here at the Crawfish Shack Seafood, boiling them in a slurry of commercial seasoning mix, garlic cloves, orange wedges and lemon grass stalks.

Cast nets hang from the acoustical-tile ceiling of the strip-mall restaurant, located behind his father’s auto-repair shop along a multiethnic corridor north of downtown. Cans of Café Du Monde coffee sit by the register, and Louis Armstrong plays in heavy rotation.

His father was raised in Vietnam, his mother in Cambodia. Mr. Pham, born 27 years ago in Grady Memorial Hospital in downtown Atlanta, calls himself a “real Georgia peach.”

But like an increasing number of Vietnamese restaurateurs across the country, he sells his customers a vision of Louisiana culture, accessorized by heaping bowls of crayfish. (Or, as they are called regionally, crawfish.) At least two other counter-service crayfish cafes in Atlanta are owned by Vietnamese or Cambodian families. Vietnamese-owned crayfish restaurants, built around liberal interpretations of Louisiana, are now suburban fixtures in Texas, California and elsewhere.

When thousands fled Indochina after the end of the Vietnam War, many ended up in Louisiana. Now, for the children of those refugees, the Gulf Coast, fringed by seafood-rich wetlands, can be a kind of second homeland.

Crayfish are not commonly consumed in Vietnam, said Andrea Nguyen, a California author of books on Southeast Asian food, but eating boiled shellfish “is a social activity among Vietnamese people.”

“Crawfish eating is visceral,” she said. “Vietnamese people like to pick at their food, to peel and eat with their fingers.”

In California some crayfish restaurants advertise themselves as quan nhau, or casual restaurants.

In southwestern Louisiana, restaurants that specialize in crayfish are often known as boiling points. Many rural boiling points, which have existed since the 1950s, are rudimentary, with concrete floors and bare wood or laminate tables.

The crayfish, which are cooked in giant pots over propane flames along with potatoes and ears of corn, arrive on plastic or metal trays. Waiters and waitresses tally orders by weight. Beer is the drink of choice. Rolls of paper towels anchor each table.

A similar, but more expansive, ethic applies at the Vietnamese-owned crayfish restaurants that began opening in Houston around 2000, and a few years later in Southern California.

Hank’s Cajun Crawfish, on Bellaire Boulevard on the west side of Houston, in a storefront with tinted windows and glaring neon, is one of a half-dozen or more Vietnamese-owned urban boiling points in that Gulf Coast city.

The frills are few. Hot sauces from three continents crowd the tables. Mardi Gras beads drape the refrigerator.

Its owner, Tony Bu, learned the trade from relatives with New Orleans roots. His boil is a traditional concoction, flavored with a commercial Cajun seasoning mix. But Mr. Bu drenches some of his crayfish in garlicky margarine and serves them in clear plastic bags. He dishes up crayfish fried rice, too.

A margarine drench and bag service are not characteristic of boiling points in Louisiana; nor is a make-your-own swab of lime juice, black pepper and salt, which recalls the traditional Vietnamese dip called muoi tieu chanh.

While flavored butter or margarine is sometimes an option in Houston, at Los Angeles-area crayfish restaurants owned by Vietnamese, it’s usually standard.

Boiling Crab in Garden Grove, Calif., which Dada Ngo and her husband, Sinh Nguyen, opened in 2003, now has eight locations in the state and beyond. All tout their finishing sauces, including a buttery blend of garlic, lemon pepper and Cajun spice mix known as the Whole Sha-Bang.

The ethnic background of the owners is downplayed. The Boiling Crab Web site portrays Mr. Nguyen as a beer-drinking good ol’ boy from Seadrift, Tex. Ms. Ngo, his Kansas-born bride, goes by the handle Yo’ Mama.

Boiling Crab was a pioneer. In the years since it opened, its success has inspired a dozen or more competing businesses, including Claws, also in Garden Grove. A pirate-themed restaurant owned by a Vietnamese family and decorated with life-size swashbuckler mannequins, Claws serves a sauce-smothered style of crayfish as well as nontraditional dishes like periwinkle snails simmered in coconut-basil sauce.

Mr. Pham, of Atlanta, is not a fan of margarine- or butter-slicked crayfish.

“I want my flavor to be in the crawfish meat,” he said, sounding like a third-generation Cajun purist. “Not on the shell. You’re not supposed to get the flavor when you lick your fingers.”

He learned to love crayfish in Louisiana. Like many Christian youths there, Mr. Pham spent long summer stretches at church camps, including an annual Vietnamese Baptist gathering, often held in New Orleans.

Following the lead of Vietnamese campers from Louisiana, he learned how to clean crayfish and how to season the water in which they cook.

Mr. Pham, who once studied to be an interior designer, sets the scene well. He stocks his shelves with Louisiana-produced étouffée and beignet mixes and emphasizes the Cajun Country origins of his crayfish. But his efforts don’t amount to gimmickry.

The foods that emerge from this small kitchen staffed by his family, including his mother, Hoe Pham, taste like honest tributes to Louisiana, filtered through the life experiences and cooking repertories of Southeast Asian immigrants.

Nuoc mia, sugar-cane juice pressed to order from Louisiana cane, is on the menu. So are spring rolls threaded with Louisiana shrimp.

Mr. Pham sources his oysters, crabs and shrimp from Gulf Coast waters. “We don’t believe in imported stuff,” he said.

Mr. Pham is not, however, beholden to Vietnamese or Louisianan measures of authenticity. He respects the New Orleans bread-baking traditions that make possible the po’ boy. But he prefers Amoroso brand bread from Philadelphia, loaves more often associated with cheese-steak sandwiches.

“I’m not trying to do it just like them,” Mr. Pham said, speaking of his friends back in Louisiana. “I’ve got to find my own way, too.”

Customers recognize the link between Vietnam and Louisiana even as they make sport of it.

For Jeff Cook, a music promoter, Mr. Pham’s fried crayfish po’ boys brought to mind the raucous processions behind New Orleans’s brass band parades.

Using the local name for those celebrations, tongue planted firmly in cheek, Mr. Cook gave a nod and a wink to tradition. “Not many people know it,” he said, “but the Vietnamese are very famous for their ‘second lines.’ ”

When my wife came here when she received her visa, the 1st month I took her to go try it and from then on she loves it now too. They don't have crawfish in Vietnam and she wishes her family can have some too. She was really craving it all the time when she was pregnant. She and I would share 6lbs together whenever she craved it. It's awesome that a lot of Vietnamese Americans are successful in their business Ventures. So many successful Vietnamese entrepreneurs out there.


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My husband is helping his sister and brother-in-law at their restaurant. They serve Lousisana cajan & fried seafood too...

Since he's come over, he also LOVES crawfish... :)


CR1/IR1 Timeline:

GENERAL INFO

[*]12-xx-2007 - 1st Trip (6wks) & Met him halfway around the world

[*]03-xx-2008 - Got engaged - two people on opposite sides of the world

[*]05-xx-2008 - 2nd Trip (2wks) - Engagement/Marriage/Consummation

[*]06-12-2008 - Filed I-130 (CR-1) with Vermont Service Center

[*]12-xx-2008 - 3rd Trip (4wks)

[*]06-05-2009 - Interview at 9:00am at HCMC Consulate (result: blue)

[*]07-08-2009 - Submitted RFE: Beneficiary's Relatives & Evidence of Relationship

[*]08-xx-2009 - 4th Trip (4wks)

[*]10-07-2009 - AP 91 days - Result: APPROVED!!

[*]10-31-2009 - POE: Detroit, MI

[*]11-18-2009 - Social Security Card

[*]11-20-2009 - Green Card

[*]01-21-2010 - Driver's License

THE NEXT STEPS...

[*]02/07/2011 - Renew Vietnam Passport

[*]07/30/2011 - Process of Removing Conditions Begins

[*]09/25/2011 - Date of I-751

[*]09/28/2011 - NOA1

[*]10/19/2011 - Biometrics

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My husband is helping his sister and brother-in-law at their restaurant. They serve Lousisana cajan & fried seafood too...

Since he's come over, he also LOVES crawfish... :)

My God !!! my wife and I love crawfish. We eat every week. It's quite expensive in GG California.

Boiling Crab in Garden Grove, Calif., which Dada Ngo and her husband, Sinh Nguyen, opened in 2003, now has eight locations in the state and beyond. All tout their finishing sauces, including a buttery blend of garlic, lemon pepper and Cajun spice mix known as the Whole Sha-Bang.

This place is PACK everynight. You have to wait for 1-2 hrs before their serve you.


I-130 Journey

USCIS

06-15-2008 : Marriage

08-16-2008 : I-130 Sent

08-18-2008 : I-130 Received

08-22-2008 : I-130 NOA1

02-02-2009 : I-130 NOA2 Approved 164 days from NOA1

NVC

02-04-2009 : Visited my wife for 2 weeks. 02-22-2009 come back to US

02-11-2009 : Received package from NVC

02-23-2009 : AOS Paid $70 (Online)

02-23-2009 : DS-3032 sent (by email)

02-25-2009 : Payment Received from my bank (AOS)

03-04-2009 : NVC has received the Choice of Agent DS-3032 (Online)

03-04-2009 : IV Application Processing Fees $400 (Online)

03-05-2009 : Payment Received from my bank (IV APS)

03-07-2009 : DS-230, and I-864 Sent (by USPS)

03-12-2009 : USPS confirm arrived at NVC for DS-230, & I-864

03-13-2009 : NVC received DS-230, & I-864 (Case in progress)

03-20-2009 : NVC case completed in 1 week NVC completed 03-20-2009.

04-02-2009 : NVC Left to HCM city

04-22-2009 : Medical Passed

05-12-2009 : Received a package IV from HCM Consulate by email

05-18-2009 : My wife got Pink.. yeah..

05-26-2009 : Visa received

06-18-2009 : US Entry!!! Yeah, my wife finally here.

06-29-2009 : Received SSN from snail mail

07-20-2009 : Green card received by mail

09-15-2009 : Writting test from DVM.

11-03-2009 : Driving Test.

01-20-2010 : Working.

04-20-2011 : Submit I751

04-26-2011 : Received I-797 NOA with Receipt Number

05-11-2011 : Received ASC Appointment Notice

06-03-2011 : Biometrics Apts @ 11:00 AM

10-11-2011 : Submit more evidence.

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yeah they got a boiling crab in Houston too but it's too expensive. We have this other place in Hong Kong shopping mall that's really good and reasonably priced. Boiling crab is making a killing though.

I take it you went to the crawfish festival at the Saints Catholic church last weekend. I even had to go to a baby baptism last weekend with a ton of crawfish and to the festival after. It is nice when crawfish season is upon us.

I also live near the boats down in Seabrook and the story never mentioned the huge confrontations that went on about 20 years ago between the VN and native shrimpers. The VN eventually won out. Even a movie was made about it years ago.

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I take it you went to the crawfish festival at the Saints Catholic church last weekend. I even had to go to a baby baptism last weekend with a ton of crawfish and to the festival after. It is nice when crawfish season is upon us.

I also live near the boats down in Seabrook and the story never mentioned the huge confrontations that went on about 20 years ago between the VN and native shrimpers. The VN eventually won out. Even a movie was made about it years ago.

No, I couldn't make it to the crawfish festival at the church this year.. My baby is still to small. She needs to be stronger so I feel safe taking her out to places. My father was a shrimper long long ago and my family made a lot of money shrimping for a living.


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I take it you went to the crawfish festival at the Saints Catholic church last weekend. I even had to go to a baby baptism last weekend with a ton of crawfish and to the festival after. It is nice when crawfish season is upon us.

I also live near the boats down in Seabrook and the story never mentioned the huge confrontations that went on about 20 years ago between the VN and native shrimpers. The VN eventually won out. Even a movie was made about it years ago.

What movie is this?

My dad is a shrimper still to this day. We used to have gulf boats but since they're getting to retirement age, they've since sold and now only have one bay boat...


CR1/IR1 Timeline:

GENERAL INFO

[*]12-xx-2007 - 1st Trip (6wks) & Met him halfway around the world

[*]03-xx-2008 - Got engaged - two people on opposite sides of the world

[*]05-xx-2008 - 2nd Trip (2wks) - Engagement/Marriage/Consummation

[*]06-12-2008 - Filed I-130 (CR-1) with Vermont Service Center

[*]12-xx-2008 - 3rd Trip (4wks)

[*]06-05-2009 - Interview at 9:00am at HCMC Consulate (result: blue)

[*]07-08-2009 - Submitted RFE: Beneficiary's Relatives & Evidence of Relationship

[*]08-xx-2009 - 4th Trip (4wks)

[*]10-07-2009 - AP 91 days - Result: APPROVED!!

[*]10-31-2009 - POE: Detroit, MI

[*]11-18-2009 - Social Security Card

[*]11-20-2009 - Green Card

[*]01-21-2010 - Driver's License

THE NEXT STEPS...

[*]02/07/2011 - Renew Vietnam Passport

[*]07/30/2011 - Process of Removing Conditions Begins

[*]09/25/2011 - Date of I-751

[*]09/28/2011 - NOA1

[*]10/19/2011 - Biometrics

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What movie is this?

My dad is a shrimper still to this day. We used to have gulf boats but since they're getting to retirement age, they've since sold and now only have one bay boat...

I will see if I can find it. It was a made for TV movie. I will see if I can find the name of the movie. Lived near where I do now and remember the events well. Even had a altercation with the KKK as I drove near going home where they were having their cross burning. VN shrimper had shot a white shrimper and there was a trial going on and the VN was found innocent. It was a event that tore apart the whole industry back then at least in our area.

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