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Trendy Viet-Cajun food has deep roots on the MS Coast. Here's where you can taste it.

Gulfport Sun Herald logo Gulfport Sun Herald 6/8/2021 Isabelle Taft, The Sun Herald

Jun. 8—Editor's note: We want to hear about your favorite Vietnamese or Viet-Cajun restaurant on the Coast. Click here to take our survey.

One day in the early 1980s, Tai Nguyen's uncle Cong Tran visited a Biloxi grocery store and saw people buying bags full of mysterious, deep red shellfish.

"My uncle was curious," Nguyen said recently. "'What is that, how do you eat it?'"

Other shoppers explained: The bug-like creatures were crawfish. Tran returned home with his own bags of the Gulf Coast delicacy.

The family had recently arrived from Saigon, Vietnam, where crawfish were unheard of but where other shellfish and snails could be the centerpiece of a family gathering or a night out. They quickly became crawfish devotees, and Nguyen family events in Biloxi typically featured crawfish boils, usually prepared in the traditional Cajun style.

Today, Nguyen is the owner of Biloxi seafood restaurant Tasty Tails, where he serves shrimp and boudin egg rolls and boiled seafood and crawfish three ways: Cajun, with garlic butter or with a secret house sauce Nguyen developed.

It's one of a handful of restaurants on the Coast serving food that falls under the "Viet-Cajun" umbrella, combining Gulf Coast seafood staples with Vietnamese flavors for a uniquely American cuisine.

From snails in Saigon to Coast crawfish boils

As the story of Nguyen's uncle shows, the roots of this cuisine go back decades, to the arrival of Vietnamese families on the Gulf Coast after the Vietnam War. They found jobs in the seafood industry, working in factories and on boats from Texas to Florida.

Nguyen's dad was a teacher in Saigon and his mom's family owned a market, but other families had fished along Vietnam's 2,000-mile coastline for generations.

Nguyen's uncle discovered crawfish in a Biloxi grocery store because the creature didn't arrive in Vietnam until the 21st century. But gathering around table piled with shellfish is a beloved Vietnamese tradition.

The word nhậu roughly translates to "eating and drinking," and it describes social gatherings where the point of the food isn't so much to fill up as it is to spend time enjoying something tasty with friends. Nhậu sessions in Saigon commonly feature beer and snails.

The crawfish boils Vietnamese newcomers discovered on the Gulf Coast weren't so different, said Andrea Nguyen, a cookbook author and expert on Vietnamese food. The food is communal, the kind of thing you can pick at while chatting and drinking.

"I think that kind of celebratory party food is what Viet-Cajun just really dovetails right into," she said.

The shared canvas of the crawfish boil also offers opportunities for individual chefs to show off their own unique approach. And even the sometimes-arduous act of peeling and eating the crawfish can be part of the fun.

"There's like this weird competitive streak in Vietnamese people too, so you may go, 'well I know how to peel, I know how to attack crawfish really fast or shrimp really fast, and look how clean everything is,' or maybe one person will take all the meat out first and then eat it," she said.

Vietnamese food culture boasts a centuries-long tradition of adapting and integrating influences from other cuisines. Take the now globally popular bánh mì sandwiches. During the French colonization of Indochina, Vietnamese people embraced baguettes, but also changed them, sometimes adding rice flour to make them fluffier. The fillings are distinctive: French-originated pate and cold cuts, yes, but also pickled carrot and daikon radish, chili, cilantro and sometimes grilled meat. Andrea Nguyen calls the approach "extremely Vietnamese."

"I don't call it appropriation, but it's almost like pride, wanting to craft something that's new and different, that's creative," she said, "and that inserts the Vietnamese spirit into the food."

Now, many Vietnamese restaurants on the Mississippi Gulf Coast place bánh mì on their menu with the explanation "Vietnamese po-boys."

From Houston to the MS Gulf Coast

Vietnamese restaurateurs started opening crawfish joints in Houston around 2000. In addition to the typical boil, these restaurants offered a distinctive margarine or butter sauce, often flavored with staples of Vietnamese kitchens like lemongrass.

Especially after Hurricane Katrina forced people to leave the Gulf Coast, temporarily or permanently, Vietnamese entrepreneurs brought their crawfish boil recipes with them to other parts of the country, like Los Angeles and San Jose in California.

American expatriates with Vietnamese family roots have introduced Viet-Cajun style seafood to diners in Saigon.

But Viet-Cajun-style crawfish has taken a bit longer to reach the Mississippi Coast. When Tai Nguyen opened Tasty Tails seven years ago, it was the first place on the Coast serving a Viet-Cajun menu, at least as far as he knows. (The first mention of crawfish served in a butter sauce in the pages of the Sun Herald was in a 2019 review of the now-closed 4 Season seafood restaurant, owned by Biloxi chef Dung Hoang.)

"People here, I think they're so used to their traditional Cajun crawfish," Nguyen said.

New Orleans is similarly known for its purist approach to crawfish. When the celebrity restaurateur David Chang featured New Orleans and Houston seafood restaurants on his Netflix show "Ugly Delicious," Chang found Crescent City diners and some seafood restaurant owners there reluctant to embrace Viet-Cajun-style crawfish.

Nguyen said he's had customers come in, learn about the concept of butter sauce on crawfish, and declare it "gross." But they change their minds after they try it.

"I just feel like it's bringing our culture and letting people experience what we have to offer," Tai Nguyen said.

Here's where you can find Viet-Cajun on the Coast, and the story behind each restaurant.

Tasty Tails in Biloxi

Tai Nguyen was raised in a shrimping family, which mean shrimp for breakfast, lunch and dinner. He spent school breaks shucking oysters and working in a shrimp factory. His skin is allergic to shrimp, so when another kid once threw a shrimp in Nguyen's eye, it not only not hurt his pride but was also extremely painful.

"I hate shrimp now," he said.

But crawfish and other shellfish are a different story. In the early 2010s, he was living in Houston and working at a seafood restaurant there. But he didn't like the traffic and the bustle of Houston. Back home in Biloxi, he saw the commercial space available at the Greyhound bus station and decided to open his own restaurant in 2014.

The menu features not only seafood but also other Cajun classics like turkey necks and gumbo, which Nguyen prepares according to his own recipe (he doesn't use a roux and he adds "some Asian stuff, too," but will not reveal the secrets beyond that).

Nguyen said tastes on the Coast can be more conservative than those of the typical Houston diner. At first, people avoided the house butter sauce. Now, things have changed. Sometimes he'll offer a special of Cajun-style seafood only.

"They're like, 'Can I get the sauce?'" he said.

Address: 188 Reynoir St suite D, Biloxi

Phone number: 228-435-4140

Find them on Facebook.

Fresh Vietnamese Bistro & Teahouse

Kieu Tran and her fiance Thieu Nguyen initially planned for their restaurant to focus on popular Vietnamese dishes like phở and gỏi cuốn. But within a few months of opening last August, they realized they had to add Gulf Coast seafood to the menu, too.

"We're from the South," said the New Orleans native. "We're trying to blend the best of both worlds."

Everything on the menu reflects the food Tran grew up eating at home, from the bún bò Huế to the crawfish platters.

"Any party we host, we usually do a crawfish boil," she said. "It just brings people together."

Tran owns the restaurant and Nguyen, who is from Biloxi, is the chef.

Inspired by long-standing Viet-Cajun restaurants in Houston like Crawfish & Noodles, Fresh serves Gulf seafood accompanied by a house butter garlic sauce with what Tran calls an "Asian twist."

The couple spent hours developing it, testing it out on family and friends until they decided it had reached peak deliciousness.

"We've had phone calls and messages — 'How do I make that sauce?'" Tran said. "'Can I buy it buy the gallon?'"

And no, she won't tell you what's in it.

Address: 3840 Promenade Pkwy STE A, D'Iberville

Phone number: 228-967-7540

Find them on Facebook.

Noah's Seafood & Noodles

Richard Trieu, the 33-year-old proprietor of Noah's Seafood & Noodles, doesn't love the label "Viet-Cajun."

"Viet-Cajun is what they call it, but it's always been around in our family," he said.

He prefers to call the food "Casian," a more completely blended combination of Cajun and Asian that also reflects the pan-Asian influence in his recipes.

Trieu's father was a shrimper in Vietnam. After the war, he moved to the U.S., first to Tampa, then to Monroe, Louisiana, and Texas. Then he got word of opportunities in Biloxi.

Richard Gollott, a pillar of the Coast's seafood industry, was eager to hire employees for his seafood factory. He helped some of the first Vietnamese families settle in Biloxi, and over the years loaned people money to buy their own shrimp boats and launch other businesses. Trieu is named for Gollott, who passed away in May.

"They came here, didn't know anyone, no English," Trieu said of his parents. "Uncle Richard helped them."

Trieu sees his family's experience of working in the seafood industry and then opening businesses as typical in Biloxi.

"Our story is just like any other Vietnamese story here," he said. "People who want freedom and opportunity came here and they ran with it, and they appreciate it. That's why they love America so much."

Noah's Seafood & Noodles, which opened in January, appears to be the Coast's newest Viet-Cajun restaurant, but Trieu is already a veteran of the scene. He used to work at Tasty Tails and credits Tai Nguyen with teaching him how to cook and being a "great, great friend."

The menu at Noah's includes phở and fried rice, boiled seafood and fried platters. It's inspired by his family's cooking, especially the Vietnamese dishes his mother prepares at the Vietnamese Martyrs Church in Biloxi on Sundays. Trieu contributed his specialty in seafood.

"I want them to taste what I tasted every Sunday at the church," Trieu said. "A bowl of phở and raw oysters, boiled crawfish, shrimp."

"It's still Cajun, still Gulf Coast, still southern," he continued. "We just enhance the flavor a little bit more. Anybody can do that."

Address: 6615 Washington Ave, Ocean Springs

Phone number: 228-334-5157

Find them on Facebook.


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