Chefs Andy and Minson Ngo win The 2013 Cross-Cultural Mash-Up Award in our Trailblazing Chef Awards.
The Korean taco burst from its L.A. origins to national prominence in very short order, proving the appeal of the combi-cultural cooking that's happening in food trucks and strip-mall food-court kitchens across the country. Hybrid cooking is nothing new: You only have to eat in Malaysia to see what happened when local, British, Indian, and Chinese kitchens bumped into each other over the centuries. But the mash-up trend is white hot, right now, right here.
Behold LA Crawfish, a restaurant its family owners call Viet-Cajun. Big piles of spicy mudbugs sit next to 5 Spice Wings and Crawfish Pho. That last dish embodies the spirit of the whole operation. It's glorious, built on a textbook meaty, aromatic pho broth, with the familiar cilantro, bean sprouts, rice noodles, and peppers. Plain, it's a fine bowl of pho. But the Cajun version, laced with New Orleans spices, crawfish, and andouille sausage, is a profound, moving handshake between two culinary cultures.
Chef Andy Ngo (son Minson cooks, too) also puts crawfish in eggrolls and empanadas at their buzzing 3-year-old food-court restaurant, located in the suburban Houston 99 Ranch Market. "Our clientele reflects the cultural melting pot of Houston," says Minson. "We've got Hispanic and African-American customers, students of all backgrounds coming from the University of Houston. A lot of food truck chefs come here. Sometimes we get folks in the kitchen to come and translate for the customers."
LA Crawfish has flat-screen digital wall menus, cheerful staff, giddy eaters, a BYOB policy, and even an offer to cook any crustaceans a customer happens to have in his or her shopping bag from the great Asian supermarket next door. Minson says he doesn't see Viet-Cajun catching on outside their planned second location downtown. We would hope otherwise: Where the banh mi sandwich went, cross-cultural pho must surely follow.