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Meet the Crawfish Boys

Two Vietnamese Brothers

Deep South meets Asia.

Kham and Khang Nguyen, two Vietnamese brothers, were the last people I expected to find when I came to interview the co-owners of My Brother’s Crawfish, a restaurant making its mark in Portland, Oregon, with Deep South dishes.

One of My Brother’s Crawfish’s secrets is they make their own spicy liquid seasoning.

Khang a heavily tattooed, 20-something with luxurious hair that frequently falls across his eyes, is in charge of the front-of-the-house. Dressed in skinny black jeans, he moves with nervous energy, his words tumbling out, frequently punctuated with laughter. “We moved to Portland for school,” he says. “I said, ‘hey, there’s no crawfish restaurant here. Dude, we should open one.’”

Older brother Kham, who holds a degree in finance from Oregon State University, is the restaurant’s chief cook. Unlike his heavily coiffed and tattooed sibling, Kham sports a crew cut and a simple blue tattoo on the back of his neck, and he speaks deliberately with an air of calm. “We grew up in Houston eating things like crawfish and étoufée,” he says. “Our mom added her own spicy Asian twist and we loved it.”

When the boys arrived in Portland, they found no Louisiana-style crawfish restaurants, so they’d often head to their older brother’s house to boil up some of the spicy crustaceans in his backyard. “That’s why we named the restaurant My Brother’s Crawfish,” says Khang, with a quick laugh. “See? It’s named after our big brother.”

Crawfish from Lake Billy Chinook in Oregon

These are Oregon crawfish from Lake Billy Chinook, but the Crawfish Brothers also buy crawfish from Louisiana and California.

My Brother’s Crawfish is tucked away in hard-to-find strip mall in southeast Portland just off 82nd Avenue. While they’ve been open only for a couple of years, their authentic Southern menu has gained a loyal following. Their menu includes Deep Southern classics like Cajun crab cakes, fried green tomatoes, crawfish étoufée (a spicy roux studded with pieces of crawfish and served over white rice), jambalaya, gumbo¸ and Po Boy sandwiches. But the stars of the menu are their seafood boils — crawfish, mussels, blue crab, Gulf coast shrimp, clams – which come can be ordered with  mild, medium, or hot house broth. You can customize your boil, adding ingredients like red potatoes, corn on the cob, mushrooms, and Andouille sausage. They also offer a delicious, homemade spicy dipping sauce made from their mother’s recipe.

Crawfish cooking in pan

My crawfish meal starts cooking.

In the kitchen, Kham fills a stockpot with a little water, a few pieces of corn, red potatoes, and Andouille sausage. He ladles in a generous amount of their house made liquid seasoning and adds a bit of their own spicy dry seasoning. Just for good measure, he squirts in a bit of Asian sweet hot sauce.

After a couple of minutes, he pulls out a few handfuls of live crawfish and adss them to the pot. Today’s wiggly blue-green critters come from Oregon‘s sandy bottomed Lake Billy Chinook and they tend to be sweeter and a bit more mild flavored than crawfish from Louisiana.

The brothers personally prefer Louisiana crawfish, but, because they serve crawfish almost all year, the Nguyen brothers order crawfish from Louisiana from spring through early summer; from Oregon sources early summer to fall; and from California mid-summer into winter.

Bue Crawfish in man's palm

Lucky, the rare blue crawfish, is lucky because he escaped the cooking pot to become Khang’s new pet.

Like crab and lobsters, crawfish must be cooked live. They keep well in the refrigerator because they simply go to sleep when exposed to cold. While we wait for the crawfish boil to finish cooking, younger Khang peers into the waxed crawfish box and finds a rare blue one. “Cool, check this out.” he enthuses, pulling up the crawfish by its tail. “It’s all blue. That’s lucky. I’m going to keep him and call him Lucky.”

Khang is fairly dancing with excitement at his find and he allows his new blue pet to walk up his tattooed forearm.

It’s not long before the crawfish have turned bright red and are ready to eat. Kham fills a heavy red bowl with a mixture of the ingredients and a generous amount of the spicy broth. It’s a feast for the eyes — brilliant red crawfish, yellow corn on the cob, creamy red potatoes, and pieces of sausage all floating in a sea of delicious spiciness.

Crawfish in bowl with corn from My Brother's Crawfish

The crawfish boil at My Brother’s Crawfish is a feast for both the eyes and the tongue.

After Kham gives me a quick lesson in peeling crawfish, I dig in. The crawfish are perfectly cooked — sweet, tender, and spicy (I ordered it medium hot). Despite the heat, I can’t help swirling my crawfish meat in the deliciously complex sweet-hot dipping sauce. I’m surprised at the a lovely counterpoint the sauce adds to the crawfish.

Despite the effort it takes to peel the crawfish and the fact that my lips are burning from the spice, these zesty little crustaceans cooked My Brother’s Crawfish style are definitely addictive. The broth is so good, I sop it up with the bread. I’ve sampled Louisiana-style crawfish in both Texas and Louisiana and this crawfish, cooked with the Nguyen brothers’ Asian slant, is some of the best I’ve ever eaten.

I also sample the brothers’ crawfish étoufée. The roux is creamy through surprisingly light with notes of celery and onion and generous pieces of sweet crawfish.

Deep South cooking — onion, celery, pepper — and bits of sweet crawfish

Crawfish étoufée features the “holy trinity” of Deep South cooking — onion, celery, pepper — and bits of sweet crawfish all in a spicy roux.

As I finish my meal, Khang suddenly starts laughing. Lucky, the blue crawfish, has escaped his temporary plastic container home and is climbing up my camera bag. I wonder if he’s unhappy that I’ve just eaten a pound of his relatives. But, with my belly full and my tongue singing from my spicy meal, I’m not feeling the least bit guilty.

Khang snatches up the blue crawfish. “Come on Lucky,” he says smiling broadly. “You’re going home with me.”

Tattoo of the My Brother's Crawfish ownerMy Brother’s Crawfish
8220 SE Harrison
Portland, OR, USA.
503-774-3786
www.mybortherscrawfish.com

 



Bobbie Hasselbring, RFT Editor

RFT co-founder Bobbie Hasselbring has been a travel junkie her entire life. An award-winning writer and editor for more than 25 years and author of the regional food-travel bestsellers, The Chocolate Lover’s Guide to the Pacific Northwest and The Chocolate Lover’s Guide Cookbook, Bobbie is editor-in-chief at realfoodtraveler.com.


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