|Shock and craw: Fried shrimp and other crustaceans are cooked to perfection, leaving them soft on the inside and crispy on the outside. — VNS Photo
With its sumptuously seasoned seafood, the new Crawfish King Restaurant brings an authentic touch of southern US Cajun cuisine to HCM City and is fast finding a devoted following. Hoang Ha reports.
He is the editor-in-chief of a well-known sports magazine, and owns several bars in HCM City, so it is perhaps natural that the interest gets extended to the restaurant business as well.
But Nguyen Minh Khoi says it was love that got him started in the new venture.
Khoi said he had been spending a great deal of his time travelling in Europe and the southern part of the United States.
His travels took him to Louisiana, where he was struck twice, once by Cupid and then by the other thing that paves the way to a man's heart: good food.
"I've had the good fortune to eat the best Cajun food in Louisiana, and I met my wife there.
"We are both addicted to fresh seafood, especially crawfish from Louisiana."
This addiction has been good for HCM City, leading to a restaurant that, for my money, serves the best crawfish (Tom hum dat) in Viet Nam.
A recent gathering with old friends led me to the somewhat 'unbashfully' named Crawfish King.
I saw straight away that the restaurant's family-friendly decor, looking like a bar in Lousiana, would attract a youthful crowd.
The walls were lined with wooden planks and colour pencils are available on every table, so customers can indulge their scribbling itch.
One prominent scribble proclaimed, " I am gay."
Fishing nets with floats hang from the ceiling.
The white paper that covers the table would soon loose its whiteness, I could see, judging by people tucking away with relish at adjoining tables.
Just looking at them made us hungry.
As he welcomed us, Khoi said he was aware of the potential for doing good business because the cuisine he wanted to serve was rare in the city, but there was another important reason: to satisfy the addiction of his wife to seafood, especially Cajun cuisine.
He said crawfish, a freshwater shellfish, is considered a Louisiana delicacy.
"It symbolises the Cajun culture of Louisiana."
Khoi recommended that we order two kilograms of boiled crawfish with medium garlic butter sauce, Carbonara - an Italian pasta dish with eggs, bacon, cream and basil leaves (VND79,000), American chicken wings with Cajun sauce (VND109,000), baked oyster with cheese (VND119,000), house garden salad (VND95,000), and four fruit beers (VND79,000).
It sounded like a lot to us, but we were carried away by his evident pride and enthusiasm.
Red 'n' spicy
Soon after we ordered, each of us had a plastic bib to wear to prevent the red'n'spicy sauce from spraying on to our clothes as we cracked into the crawfish, as also a pair of plastic gloves to keep our hands clean.
The dishes are served in china plates, which Khoi said are not as easy to manage as the disposable plates used in Louisiana, but he said he felt his Vietnamese customers would prefer it this way.
Everything else, though, comes to the table as it does down south in the southern US state.
Customers order their shellfish by weight and can choose from various crustaceans including crawfish, clam, mussels, shrimp and mantis shrimp. These come in four flavours - garlic butter, Cajun, Lemon pepper, and All in 1.
You can choose the level of spice to taste - mild, medium, spicy or, as the menu saucily notes, "spicy spicy."
We were there on a Tuesday, the "crawfish day" of the month, which meant the price was VND499,000 per kilogram instead of the usual VND799,000.
The dish was delivered to our table in four plastic bags of 0.5kg each.
"Pinch the tail and suck the head," Khoi said, explaining that is how crawfish is eaten.
Crawfish King Restaurant
Add: 63 Truong Dinh Street, Ben Thanh Ward, District 1, HCM City
Tel: 08 62727888
Hours: 10am – midnight
Price range: VND49,000 - 899,000
Dishes to try: Crawfish with medium garlic butter sauce, Carbonara, American chicken wings with Cajun sauce, baked Oyster with cheese, fried shrimp, and house garden salad.
Comment: New dishes, cuisine certainly worth trying.
He showed us how to remove the head from the tail and suck the head, for the juice there is a delicacy by itself, then hold the tip of the tail, gently tug the flesh and savour that too.
Crawfish are small, like prawns, resembing tiny lobsters, but they are more tender and have a unique flavour. The ones we had were around 10cm long. There was not a lot of flesh on them, and we worked hard to get at it, which probably made the dish even tastier.
If you do not have time and the patience for this, you are better off ordering clam, mussel, or shrimp.
Khoi said he imports frozen crawfish from Louisiana.
The sauce we were served had maize, potatoes and sausages in it. It was delicious and Khoi beamed as we told him so. The ‘secret' sauces are what make the dish special, he said.
"The spices are imported from Louisiana," he said, but refused to say anything else about the recipe.
It is also clear that the restaurant has really skilled chefs. The chicken wings and fried shrimp were mouth-wateringly soft inside and crispy outside, the Carbonara and salad were of the right texture and taste, and baked oysters sweet smelling.
We enjoyed very bite of every dish, and the fruit beers, another restaurant specialty, went really well with the seafood.
"I will have a different promotion every month," Khoi said, adding that his aim is to give "a chance to every person" to taste his restaurant's specialties.
This month, he said, guests who come to the restaurant on Monday and Tuesday, the crawfish days, can get the discounted price. On Wednesday, chicken wings day, a portion will cost just VND49,000.
From Thurdsay to Sunday, an order of every kilogram of crawfish (VND799,000) or a combination of two (2kg at VND899,000 each) of crawfish, shrimp, clams or mussel, with two maizes, two potatoes, and four sausages will be served with a complimentary free a portion of spaghetti with ground beef or Carbonara.
Besides, a group of eight will automatically get a ten per cent discount and those who visit the restaurant during its Happy Hour (1-5pm every day) can enjoy a 20 per cent discount on their bill.
I will check out the other dishes another day, but if you like, love, or are curious about crawfish, I will tell you without hesitation that is the place. — VNS