By: Emma Comery Photos by: Rachel Benavides
Crack. Bright red shell splitting in half. Golden butter dripping. Oh, the beautiful mess. The art of crawfish.
Maybe I’m being too fanciful, because David Lee and Elias Garza – owners of Mudbugs Cajun Ice House – will tell you that crawfish are just plain good eats.
A few years ago, the sushi chef and former Marine were just two friends hosting crawfish boils in their driveways for the neighbors. “We couldn’t find any restaurants around that had live crawfish,” recalls Lee, “even in season. So we would buy a couple bags and do it ourselves.” Upgrading from driveway boil friends to restaurant business partners seemed like a natural transition, so they converted an empty commercial space on Airline into a warm, elevated dining room and started building their menu.
Though deeply rooted in Cajun traditions, Mudbugs isn’t just bringing Louisiana fare to Texas. It’s bringing something new to the table. “My father is Chinese and my mother is Scotch-Irish,” says Lee. “So everything I cook is fusion, because I’m a fusion myself.” That means in addition to traditional Cajun crawfish with lots of spice, lemon, and garlic oil, you’ll also find Vietcajun crawfish (a style born out of Houston) tossed in a garlicky butter sauce, and Mudbugs’ own signature style served with their house butter. Because butter is never just butter.
While Lee, who also owns Rock & Rolls Sushi Lounge on the island (and one in Austin), oversees the menu with Chef Joe Andaverde, Garza runs the day-to-day of this Cajun-meets-Corpus gem. It’s a lot like his time in the Marines, he says. “Long hours, lots of hard work, lots of fun.”
From the polished cement floors and brick accent wall to the custom-built wood and pipe tables, Mudbugs feels a bit like a refined man cave. “We wanted industrial and elevated,” explains Lee, “because there’s this connotation that Cajun food is dirty and poor, and we want to show that it’s for everyone.” Mudbugs isn’t a pile of fish and potatoes thrown onto a sheet of butcher paper. It’s a full bar, craft cocktails, Sunday football games … a place to entertain clients, catch up with the girls, or experience crawfish as a family.
During COVID-19, Lee and Garza provided free meals to nurses, supplied sack lunches to kids, and hosted Free Meal Tuesdays at all three of their restaurants. “For a while,” says Garza, “we turned it into a grocery store. We have a lot of elderly customers and we didn’t want them fighting the lines at H-E-B just to find out what they need is sold out. We had a lot of essentials here, so we wanted to help people.”
Now they are getting back to a regular schedule, and even launching their lunch hours, too. For Lee and Garza, Mudbugs is a place of community, an extension of their old driveway crawfish boils where old friends come together and new friends are made. They invest in that community, buying their crawfish from a local supplier and their alcohol from local retailers, and expanding the Corpus dining scene with some of the best Cajun food around.
2743 Airline Rd | 361.929.5450