Despite the fact that the Ming’s Chinese Food sign still hangs proudly above the small storefront on the corner of Alcatraz and Martin Luther King, it’s clear that the restaurant is no longer selling stir-fries. Instead of take-out menus and lucky fish tanks, there’s now an array of Mardi Gras beads and hot sauce bottles lining the windowsill. A precociously dressed mannequin stands watch at the door. And several sandwich board signs line the sidewalks up and down the block directing passers-by to the one and only Easy Creole, the über casual restaurant that has been serving informal Louisiana cuisine in the former Ming’s space since last spring.
As befits their name, the owners have taken a simple, steam-table approach to service. Each dish, from étouffée to gumbo to red beans and rice, is made is made in advance and then simply plated to order. Unless there’s a long line of diners, the crawfish maque choux is only a minute or two away. (The greatest advantage of this system — short of its efficiency — is the ability to taste any dish before ordering. All of the hosts/cashiers are more than willing to let each and every diner taste their entire way through the menu upon arrival.) Each item on the menu is served over a choice of white or brown rice and gloriously buttery garlic bread. Half of the items contain meat, and the other half of the menu is vegan (add cheese to make dishes meal less vegan but more tasty).
While undeniably relaxed, Easy Creole isn’t, however, looking to embrace subtlety. Their slogan, “Creole, Cajun, Kind of,” is proudly displayed on their chalkboard menu, and it gives owners Jess McCarter, Grant Gooding and Jeron Thomson the leeway to do basically whatever they’d like. Easy Creole’s décor is a mishmash of trinkets, old photographs, and what look like old stage props — think Cracker Barrel, Disney World, and a Cajun grandmother’s basement got thrown together in a barrel and dumped on the walls.
Likewise, their immense hot-sauce collection shows little rhyme or reason. Bottles are scattered all over the space, so diners will need to scout out their favorite bottle, or perhaps borrow it from a neighbor. Some sauces, like the aptly named “suicide sauce,” are made in house. Others are perennial favorites like Sriracha, Tabasco, and Louisana Hot Sauce.
Try the wondrous, neon garlic bread
But you may not even need the hot sauce. Depending on the day, the dishes are fiery hot, tamed only by taking big bites of that wondrous garlic bread. This bread, by the way, is of the church potluck category, doused in mysteriously neon garlicky butter, yet elevated by the baguette’s quality — chewy, toothsome, and seriously unforgettable.
Besides the bread, the dishes are hit-or-miss. There’s no need to fret, however, if you’ve tasted a total dud. The menu changes almost every day (or even during the day) depending on, well, who knows? Easy Creole isn’t a seasonal restaurant, and Gooding’s dishes seem dictated more by his mood, the amount of leftovers, or the popularity of a particular plate.
The bourbon red beans and hot links — deeply savory, tender beans studded with snappy pork sausage —and the rich, deeply savory chicken creole stew are two of the strongest dishes, and the most frequent on the menu. Others, like the silky, red wine-based eggplant porta vita, rarely appear, eclipsed by the dull spinach and mushroom étouffée, bland tofu ropa vieja, or overly sweetened Choctaw chili.
Gooding’s gumbo, made with a trio of chicken, sausage, and shrimp bound in a smoky, buttery roux, is elusive. It seems to only appear on the menu the day after visiting, and its lack of presence is emblematic of the restaurant’s biggest drawback.
When a restaurant serves an unpredictable menu, it’s hard to learn to love the food. If, instead of shuffling through an encyclopedia of dishes, Easy Creole would stick to the solid classics with a few rotating specials, it could transform from a neighborhood joint to an East Bay destination.
1761 Alcatraz Ave, Berkeley CA 94703
Recommended Dishes: Bourbon red beans and hot links, gumbo, chicken Creole, eggplant porta vita, garlic bread
Kate Williams was raised in Atlanta with an eager appetite. She spent two years as a test cook at America’s Test Kitchen before moving out to Berkeley to write, eat, and escape the winter. She currently writes for Serious Eats and The Oxford American, in addition to her work at Berkeleyside NOSH.
Read more of Kate William’s restaurant reviews for Nosh:
China Village: Albany Szechuan restaurant is still firing on all cylinders
Homestead: Seasonal DIY cooking done right
Hutch: A hit and miss attempt at refined southern cooking
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