“Is Houston the most exciting food city in America right now? The world, maybe?”
That’s just one of the provocative questions that celebrity chef David Chang asks in his new Netflix series, Ugly Delicious. Set to debut February 23, the eight episodes explore the intersection of food and culture across a variety of topics: everything from the debate about whether Neapolitan pizza is better than New York-style to the way that fried chicken has been used to foster negative stereotypes about African Americans. Houston plays a prominent role in the fourth episode, which is titled “Shrimp and Crawfish.” The episode explores how the two crustaceans are prepared to contrast how the cities of Houston and New Orleans embrace diversity.
Chef Chang has been a fan of Houston's diverse restaurant scene for a number of years. Not only did he tout the Bayou City as the “next the food capital of America” in an essay in GQ, he also helped raise money for Harvey relief efforts by participating in Southern Smoke. Unsurprisingly, Houston's chefs and restaurants come off well in the episode.
The episode begins with dinner at legendary New Orleans restaurant Galatoire’s where Chang encounters Joshua Martinez; the one-time Houstonian who operated both The Modular food truck and The Chicken Ranch appears as a tuxedo-clad waiter who is luckily on hand to succinctly summarize the difference between the way these two Gulf Coast port cities approach food.
“Houston is a new melting pot, it’s a new Creole. It’s immigrants who’ve moved there. Everyone is taking from everyone else,” Martinez says. “You do that here, people look at you like you’re nuts. You get into, like, Viet-Cajun crawfish. It’s never happened here, and I don’t know why. But we’re hoping.”
From there, Chang heads to Houston restaurant Crawfish & Noodles, where he holds a roundtable discussion with the restaurant’s chef-owner Trong Nguyen (announced as a James Beard semifinalist last week) and James Beard Award-winning chefs Chris Shepherd (Underbelly, One Fifth) and Justin Yu (Better Luck Tomorrow, Theodore Rex). The conversation weaves in and out of the episode: touching on why Houston has embraced Viet-Cajun crawfish — defined by the show as featuring garlic butter and being tossed in spices after boiling — why shrimp remains more popular nationally, and even the environmental and dietary implications of inexpensive shrimp.
Houstonians’ enthusiasm for the Viet-Cajun style gets contrasted with New Orleans, where even the Vietnamese owner of a crawfish restaurant insists on only serving traditional, Cajun-style crawfish, which the show defines as adding a potent mix of spices to the boiling water.
“We stay true to the traditions here in New Orleans,” Cajun Corner owner Georgette Dang tells Chang. Later, she adds, “we embrace our Viet culture, just not in crawfish.”
From there, Chang moves on to another provocative claim that will shock crawfish fanatics: boiling crawfish isn’t the best way to eat them. He goes so far as to prepare a batch of stir-fried crawfish for Shepherd, Yu, and Nguyen. Speaking to CultureMap about his experience filming the episode, Yu admits that Chang might be onto something.
“I really hate to say this, but they were better,” Yu says. “I think, looking objectively, it would be better if we had stir-fried crawfish, but I think crawfish boils aren’t only about the food. I think that’s why they’ll prevail.”
Shepherd, however, isn’t quite ready to concede the point. For as adventurous as his cooking can be — he serves Chang a whole pig basted with Vietnamese thit ko broth during the episode (a riff on Carolina-style whole hog barbecue) — even Shepherd isn’t giving up a traditional boil.
“Come on, man. I’m not going to say that,” the chef says with a laugh. “They were delicious. They really were. The brightness of the crawfish itself was fantastic, but I’m a Southern boy.”
The show even takes a political turn. Chang notes that the Ku Klux Klan protested the arrival of Vietnamese shrimpers, but that eventually people accepted them. He wonders whether food from Africa and the Middle East could help conquer Islamophobia, but none of the people he interviews are quite willing to follow him down that particular rabbit hole.
Chang concludes by offering a vision of what the future might hold for Viet-Cajun cuisine when he travels to Vietnam and meets Nikki Tran, who has opened a restaurant in Saigon that's inspired by dishes she ate in Houston. Instead of boiled crawfish, she's serving stir-fried river prawns with Cajun spices and Vietnamese herbs. She calls it "Viejun" cuisine.
Shepherd tells CultureMap that he met Tran during his own trip to Vietnam, and the two chefs have been keeping in touch. He says that Tran is trying to make her way back to Houston to open another restaurant that could incorporate some Viejun elements. If she's successful, Houston's continually-evolving food scene will reach another level of development — maybe even a fit for Ugly Delicious season two?
Not that Chang has announced any such plans for more episodes of the show — but clearly he has to return to his favorite food city sooner or later.