In southeast Texas, it’s time for a party
By Jill Ellis
When introduced to the uproarious and messy ritual of eating crawfish during my first visit to southeast Texas, I thought, “So this is what they mean by a party in your mouth.” My father, my fiancé, and I were happily making ourselves at home at a wide-plank table at Floyd’s Cajun Seafood and Texas Steakhouse in Beaumont, drinking ice-cold beers and ceremoniously sucking the meat from a pile of spicy mudbugs (as the natives call them). Earlier, co-owner Floyd Landry had treated us to a tableside demonstration of his preferred peeling method. He separated the head from the tail, and then advised: “Just gently hold the end of the tail and suck the meat out. It’ll come right out.”
With watering eyes and burning lips, I announced myself hooked on those jazzy morsels of spicy goodness. Turns out I’m not alone in my affection for this seasonal treat.
Diners can enjoy mudbugs in many ways at Floyd’s: There’s a rich crawfish bisque, crawfish fondue, crawfish po-boys, and buttery crawfish étouffée. But from January through July (and sometimes later), when crawfish are in season in Texas, most aficionados prefer them straight up. That’s when kitchen staff dish out crawfish by the pound in galvanized steel trays, alongside a bucket for discarding the shells, plus plenty of paper towels.
From full-service restaurants like Floyd’s to small mom-and-pop joints that resemble shacks more than dining destinations, you can find “mudbugs” in season almost anywhere along the Gulf Coast—especially where you find Cajun cooks.
The term Cajun comes from the word Acadian, which refers to the French colonists who settled Acadia (present-day Nova Scotia and surrounding Maritime Provinces) in the 17th Century. Deported by the British Crown in the mid-1700s, many Acadians wound up in Louisiana, adding their French heritage to an already rich mixture of Spanish and African cultures. Twentieth-Century flooding in the bayous and lack of employment put them on the move again, this time to the Golden Triangle of southeast Texas, where they once again transplanted their food, culture, and joie de vivre. And so it was for the grandparents of Larry Judice, owner of Larry’s French Market & Cajun Restaurant in Groves, a community just north of Port Arthur.
The sounds of accordions and fiddles—sometimes recorded, but more often performed live—fill the air at this bustling restaurant. What started as a grocery store in the 1930s has evolved into one of the region’s premier spots to enjoy Cajun food, with seating available for 450 diners at a time. During crawfish season, Judice says, his staff boils 3,500 to 4,000 pounds of crawfish each week in a mixture of water, salt, red and black pepper, garlic powder, onions, and lemon.
Long wooden tables covered in red-and-white-checkerboard oilcloth line the main room, where families and friends gather to celebrate Cajun culture—and eat crawfish, boudain balls, po-boys, frog’s legs, and all manner of other surf-and-turf specialties. Paintings of bayou scenes and fishing trawlers add authentic ambiance, as do the crawfish traps and crab pots employed as decor. The place hops with Cajun-style dance music every Thursday through Saturday nights, when bands such as Jackie Caillier and Cajun Cousins, Barry Badon and the Bayou Boys, and the Zydeco Combo play to appreciative crowds.
Judge Carl Thibodeaux, a native of Louisiana who now lives in Orange, tells me he won’t go anywhere else for his fill of mudbugs. “Larry’s does it old-fashioned, Cajun style—with the food, the music, and the dancing,” he says.
For a more intimate experience, diners head north toward Orange, where a casual spot called Peggy’s on the Bayou caters not only to walk-in customers, but also seafood fans who arrive by boat. In fact, if you sit in one of the half-dozen booths on the porch overlooking Cow Bayou, you can watch the comings-and-goings of fishing trawlers, bayou boats, and pleasure craft ranging from sailboats to yachts headed to Florida. While dining on crawfish during our visit, Dad and I spotted an alligator patrolling the waterway and several waterbirds stalking prey from the marsh grasses.
Inside, surrounded by signs proclaiming seafarer’s sentiments such as “Life Is Better By the Water” and “Everything Tastes Better With Fish Scales In It,” a dozen or so tables seat hungry diners. Peggy’s serves up crawfish in batches of three- or five-pound lots, along with other items such as seafood po-boys, burgers made with crab cakes and beef, oysters, catfish, seafood tacos, gumbo, and crawfish-stuffed potatoes.
Cold beer complements Peggy’s zesty flavors, but be advised that it’s BYOB. Your waiter will even ice down your beverage of choice in a tableside bucket.
While much of the crawfish consumed in southeast Texas comes from Louisiana, some of it comes from farms in Texas, such as the Broussard Crawfish Farm near Nome, west of Beaumont. Here, brothers Joe and Gene Broussard have been harvesting crawfish from their 400 acres of organic rice paddies for 20 years. While we were chatting, the Broussards’ phone rang constantly with folks looking for fresh crawfish for their home boils.
Though the harvest season often begins in January, colder winters mean smaller crawfish. The brothers told me that the season usually peaks in April with the harvest of the biggest specimens and lasts until the beginning of July.
Do-it-yourself crawfish boilers will want to provide between
three and five pounds of crawfish per person, and consider rigging up a pot
outside, as cooking crawfish is almost as messy as eating crawfish. (The proper
tablecloth, by the way, is yesterday’s newspaper.) Have lots of beer on hand,
invite plenty of friends, and turn up the zydeco music. After that, laissez les
bon temps rouler!