Crawfish are delectable crustaceans that look like tiny lobsters. They are the star ingredient of the famously southern Crawfish Boil. Often made for large gatherings, this dish is prepared by boiling crawfish in a large pot with other ingredients like potatoes, corn cobs, mushrooms, garlic, and seasonings that usually depend on the family recipe.
If you're in Houston, the best time to try crawfish is during crawfish season, which can run anywhere from January to July along the Gulf Coast. However, be aware that the weather plays a major factor. If it's a cold winter, the season will start a little later, and if the summer is dry, it will end earlier. Generally speaking, the peak months for crawfish are February, March, and April.
Where to Eat It
The best place to eat crawfish is in someone's backyard, but if your invitation got lost in the mail, you can also head to a number of classic Houston restaurants famous for crawfish, like The Boil House or The Crawfish Shack, where you can order your crawfish by the spice level (mild, medium, spicy, and more spicy). BB's is another restaurant that offers a Tex-Orleans spin on a Gulf Coast classic for those who are looking for something a little different. The crawfish are boiled with a unique blend of spices that has a little kick to it, with the option of adding more seasoning to the critters before you dive in.
Houston is also home to one of the largest Vietnamese-American communities in the U.S., so, of course, there would be some tasty fusion options available during crawfish season. LA Crawfish, in particular, has the best reputation for Cajun-Asian crawfish in Houston. In addition to the standard corn and potatoes side dishes, you can also get some rice to mop up the leftover juices and even hot & sour sauce to dip your crawfish tails in.
How Much to Order
Boiled crawfish are typically sold by the pound, even at restaurants. A pound of crawfish might sound like a lot, but there isn’t a ton of meat on the critters. Locals who are already adept at extracting the meat can easily put down 6 pounds in one sitting, while newbies might call it after a pound or two. A good rule of thumb is to order at least 3 pounds per person, and don't forget the sides!
Ways to Cook It
While the standard method is to boil crawfish, there's no shortage of alternatives to get your fix without sucking on crawfish heads. The tail meat can be tossed into any traditional cajun or creole dish, such as gumbo, jambalaya, etouffee, or po'boys. In Houston in particular, crawfish are also used in Tex-Mex cooking and can be found in tacos and nachos. You may even find crawfish mixed in with more standard American staples like macaroni and cheese.
Most locals, however, prefer their crawfish straight from the pot, complete with potatoes and corn on the cob, which are boiled and seasoned with the crawfish of course.
How to Peel It
For many first-timers, peeling crawfish can be a bit intimidating. But don't worry, with a little practice, anyone can become a pro—though even with practice, things will get messy. Also, beware of the straight-tail crawfish: When crawfish are alive when they’re cooked, their tails curl, but if they’re dead when they get tossed into the pot, their tails will stick straight out, and they’ll taste horrible. If you see any straight-tailed critters on your platter, toss them.
- Gently twist and pull the tail to separate it from the head. If you’re new to crawfish eating, you might want to start with the biggest crawfish on your platter until you get the hang of it, as bigger crawfish tend to be easier to peel.
- Suck on the opening of the head. Don’t worry: You won’t actually suck out brains. It’s just the broth from the crawfish pot, and it’s delicious.
- Separate the exoskeleton by applying pressure with your thumbs on the first line of the crawfish’s underside right by the opening. After it cracks, push the sides outward in both directions to completely separate.
- Extract the meat. Once you crack open the exoskeleton, pinch the fin-like end of the tail, and gently pull out the meat from the other end with a twisting motion.
- Devein the tail. More often than not, a nasty looking black or grayish line of goo can be found along the tail. Remove it by pressing your thumb down on one side of the vein and pushing it along the meat until the goo scrapes off.
- Don't forget the claws. The larger crawfish, in particular, will also have meat in the claws. Pull the lower claw down and away with a twisting motion to get at the meat.