Catch Kathy Leng on the right night at East Asia, and you can witness her transformation into a fine-tuned dumpling-making machine. Wrappers are stacked high. A huge bowl of filling is set at the ready. Then, one by one, she swiftly fills, folds, and pinches shut, oh, about a few hundred doughy bundles of joy -- all within view of her awed customers (and the two very fat, big-eyed goldfish that live in the restaurant's fish tank).
But you don't need to view the spectacle to know that the dumplings -- as well as the spring rolls, wontons, and egg rolls -- at this Chinese and Thai spot in Somerville are homemade. You just need to bite into one.
Crunch through the skin of a crispy Thai spring roll ($4.25) and fresh ginger perfumes every bite. Sink your teeth into a delicate Thai dumpling ($5.25) and a fabulous warm, soft, savory mash of spring onion, glass noodles, and mild cabbage awaits. Chomp into a Chinese ravioli ($5.25) and juicy, home-ground pork gives way to perky onion greens and garlic.
Even the wontons stand out. All too often, these dumplings are mushy-skinned vehicles for sad little wads of gristly meat. But scoop up a glistening al dente wonton from a bowl of East Asia's light, not- too-salty soup ($2.50), and a feisty burst of black pepper jazzes up the tender little meatball prize inside.
These are some pretty big flavors for such a pipsqueak restaurant. Just a half-dozen tables fit in the plain, white-walled dining room, which is dominated by the walk-up counter where most folks come for take out.
But it's well worth dining in. Unlike the dumplings, most of the entrees are not particularly authentic, rather they cater to American tastes with restrained seasoning and familiar ingredients. But they do stand out for being unusually fresh. Nicely prepared vegetables are always in abundance, and the sauces are especially light.
In other words, they mainly serve healthy meals. And that's just what business partners Kevin Leng (Kathy's brother) and John Zhang were aiming for when they moved here from Dalian in Northeast China and opened East Asia.
"We use as little oil as possible, and we cut down on starch, because it has a lot of calories, too," said John, who was a chemistry teacher back home.
"We did some surveys in the neighborhood before we opened and people wanted lighter food. So that's how we cook," added Kevin, who taught economics.
Their formula has worked. At 11 years in business, East Asia is no newcomer. For this reviewer, and my nearby friends and neighbors, it's long been a dependable source of last-minute, quick meals. Bloggers citywide have recently been doling out raves as well.
Dishes that keep people coming back include anything with the homemade tofu, which is nicely chewy and flavorful. Try it as garlicky yu hsiang tofu on a bed of tender broccoli ($7.25) or in the light tofu basil soup with fresh herbs ($2.50).
Other hits include chili eggplant ($7.55), with its toothsome pillows of soft eggplant tossed with dimes of fresh garlic and crunchy red peppers. Red goqi berries add an interesting bittersweet taste to the tender chicken goqi ($7.95). Wide chow foon noodles are also nicely done here either with crispy chicken or beef ($7.95). My favorite is the "Chinese vegetable of the day" ($7.95), which is always tender bok choy in a garlic-tweaked oyster sauce.
Shrimp is the one disappointment. It tends to be soggy and overcooked. If you want chili heat, you'll have to ask for it. But other than that, my only wish is that they post a schedule for the dumpling show. They've just added a new website though, so maybe, they'll let us all know.