East Bay Bite of the Week: Cajun-Inspired Fare at Easy Creole
"Gumbo is like sex. Even if it's bad, I'll still have some more," says Grant Gooding. Gooding is the chef helming Berkeley's newest kind-of-sort-of Cajun joint, Easy Creole. And, maybe due to his lifelong obsession with the stuff, the man makes a mean gumbo.
Molly Gore Thomson, Gooding, and Easy Creole's trademark hectic walls
Easy Creole sits on what used to be a quiet stretch off of Adeline Street in South Berkeley, marked by the ancient signage of bygone "Ming's Chinese Food," that some pragmatic tagger has amended with an elegant, "not anymore" scrawled in similar script. Easy Creole itself is clear with own its genre-bending tendencies with the tagline, "Cajun. Creole. Kind Of." To start, (New Orleans--better to plug your ears), half of the menu is vegan, and three quarters is gluten-free. And still, Gooding does a bang-up job with proteins.
The gumbo is a hearty, smokey affair, and the red beans with hot links are thick and luscious, slow-simmered, and fired up by a quick bourbon deglaze. The "kind of" points to tendencies like throwing curry spices in the spinach and mushroom étouffée, and tossing things like a turkey rendition of Mexican pozole on the menu. When I ask him about the menu's tendency to stray from traditional Nola cuisine, Gooding makes a good point.
"The history of Cajun food is the story of something endlessly fluctuating. It's been based on whatever is available for convenience's sake. When the Sicilians came, so did sausage. They got new ingredients when new groups arrived. 'Authentic' is really for the tourists," says Gooding.
Gooding got his Cajun cooking chops at a restaurant in Indianapolis, fleeing out west about six years ago with the assumption that he had given up the restaurant business. Three years later, and he'd be manning the pans at his homegrown pop up inside La Victoria in the Mission and The Residence in Duboce Triangle.
Now he's partnered up with Jeron Thomson and Jess McCarter, and the trio has done an artful job of shimmying a brick and mortar from a Louisiana-inspired pop-up, and then something homey from an old, decayed space. Given a few pickle barrels and reclaimed furnishings from thrift stores and the likes of Gooding's bedroom walls, the three can make a space jive and sing. The walls are a hectic mash of goods from portraits of Elvis to strange paintings, with a few antique signs and mirrors thrown in along the way.
The menu changes daily, but you can always count on the gumbo and the étouffée, as well as those thick, homey Louisiana red beans and rice. Though the food strays outside the confines of Louisiana, a certain kind of hospitality leaks from the baseboards here. And, on the rainiest days, it's the kind of place that takes better care of you than you're ever likely to yourself. And most of the time, that's almost better than a bowl of righteous gumbo.
Easy Creole, 1761 Alcatraz, Berkeley, (510) 858-5063.