Walking into Easterly in Berkeley is a feast for all the senses — a brief flash of light from the flaming wok in the kitchen, the sharp scents of stinky tofu, smoked pork, and dried red chiles, the buzz of tables full of college students, and the sugar-sweet, nostalgia-inducing crooning of Taiwanese pop star Jay Chou blasting over the speakers.
The 2½-month-old restaurant, which serves mainly Hunan cuisine, is already overflowing with activity, often with waiting lists on the weekends. It's a testament to the fact that Hunan cuisine is in high demand in the East Bay. Up until recently, restaurants offering this kind of deep dive into Hunan cuisine have been hard to find in these parts. But with Wojia Hunan Cuisine in Albany, and now Easterly in Berkeley — which also has a location in Santa Clara and will soon expand to Fremont, Cupertino, and Millbrae — it's clear that Hunan cuisine is, pardon my pun, one of the hottest out there.
Despite its current popularity, of course, Hunan food is nothing new. Outside of the province itself, Henry Chung is often credited with being one of the first Hunan chefs to introduce the cuisine in the United States with his restaurant, Henry's Hunan, which opened in San Francisco in 1974. At the time, the restaurant was a sensation. Now, over 40 years later, Hunan food is once again becoming one of the most talked-about cuisines in the Bay Area.
The people of Hunan, Chung says in his book Henry Chung's Hunan Style Chinese Cookbook, "all have one thing in common — that is, love of hot pepper." In fact, chiles are considered an essential ingredient. "Hunan people can live without meat, but they cannot live without hot pepper," he wrote.
So it should come as no surprise that most dishes at Easterly incorporate chile peppers in some shape or form. The poached fish fillets in sour soup demonstrated Easterly's talent for showcasing spice. A tabletop stove arrived at the table to keep the brimming bowl of soup warm. Dried red chile peppers added fiery heat to the soup, while a few Sichuan peppercorns added buzzing, floral-tasting heat that managed not to overpower the flavor of the green, mouth-puckering pickled cabbage soup. The different types of spice — the burn of the red peppers, the tingling of the Sichuan peppercorn — combined to create a complex, playful heat.
On the milder side, there's pork with fresh green peppers. Tender slices of pork, coated in a slightly sweet sauce, combined with juicy, soft peppers and the robust flavor of garlic for a dish that tasted like rustic homestyle cooking.
Similar green peppers were used in an appetizer of eggplant with smashed green peppers and preserved egg. The eggplant was cooked until falling apart, with a texture somewhere between stir-fried eggplant and baba ghanoush. Green peppers added heat and bite, while the preserved egg provided jelly-like texture and bursts of savory flavor.
On the toastier, cumin-infused side, there are fried lamb chops: small, bone-in pieces of lamb topped with giant fried red peppers. As he dropped off the dish, our server informed us that these chiles were, in fact, edible. While intimidating in appearance, the chiles were pleasantly crisp and nutty in flavor and didn't taste nearly as hot as they looked. The lamb had a thin, delicate crust around the edges, while tasting surprisingly lean and greaseless even though it was fried. The meat was imbued with toasty, nutty flavors from spices like cumin, which was emphasized by the crunch of peanuts. Cilantro on top, meanwhile, added freshness.
If you're looking for funky flavor along with your spice, try the fried stinky tofu (or "strong-smelling," as it's named on the menu). The fried crust was a little chewier than I would have liked. But the tofu had a sharp, pungent flavor reminiscent of blue cheese, which was tamed by the spicy, vinegary sauce on top. At only $2.50 apiece, it's a low-stakes commitment for those who are curious enough about stinky tofu to give it a try — or a reasonably-priced opportunity for stinky tofu lovers to load up on the stuff.
Hunan cuisine is known for its smoked meats, so I tried the stir-fried smoked pork with dried radish. The slices of smoked pork resembled slices of bacon, yet with an even stronger smoky, slightly sweet flavor that imparted itself to the entire dish. And though it didn't have the crisp edges you'd expect with bacon, the pork was tender and juicy. Most of the dish consisted of dried radishes, which were delightfully crunchy, tangy, and salty. Slices of green onions added their fresh, grassy heat, while dried red chiles added more assertive spice.
The three-flavor eggplant came artfully presented with a third topped with minced pork, a third topped with garlic, and a third topped with cilantro. Even after mixing all the toppings together with the eggplant, there was enough garlic to rival the garlickiest of garlic fries. The pork added flavors of sweetness and spice, while cilantro kept things fresh. The eggplant itself had a succulent, meaty texture, making it the star of the dish despite the abundance of toppings.
The sticky rice with pork ribs offered a welcome respite from the heat of the other dishes. The top of the dish was adorned with sweet fresh corn, cut straight off the cob into strips that are arranged in a star-like formation. The rice was both floral and nutty, with a texture that somehow managed to be al dente and chewy at the same time. The ribs, which were buried under the rice, were flavorful and juicy, though few. Don't order this expecting a meat-centric dish.
I'd never seen pumpkin pie on a Chinese restaurant menu before, so I had to try it. What arrived was four piping hot fried golden pumpkin disks. They were fried until the edges had a delicate, shattery crust and inside, the dense "pies" had a chewy, bouncy layer of pumpkin mixed with glutinous rice flour, with red bean filling in the middle for some sweetness.
Since Wojia in Albany and Easterly in Berkeley are both Hunan-focused, many diners will want to draw comparisons between the two. I prefer the ambiance, service, and presentation at Wojia, though certain dishes, like the fish in sour soup, are executed better at Easterly. Easterly also offers dishes that Wojia doesn't and vice versa. After several visits to both restaurants, I feel like I've hardly scratched the surface of their menus. But after years of having to travel outside the East Bay for these kinds of Hunan dishes, I feel lucky to have both of them nearby.