Sichuan Bucket List

You'll want to try everything on the menu at this new Bellaire favorite.

 Step inside the kitchen at Mala to see its team of all-Sichuan chefs hard at work.

At 10:55 a.m. on a Tuesday morning last week, I was sitting excitedly in my car, counting the minutes down like New Year's Eve until Mala Sichuan Bistro opened at 11 a.m. As the clock struck, I looked up to see my dining companion walking past my car, and I sprung out to join him. We walked inside, the first customers of the day, and owner Cori Xiong chuckled when she saw us darken her door once again: "Well, you're early today."

In the eight months since Mala Sichuan has been open, I've eaten there half a dozen times. My dining companion, Chris Frankel, many more. Frankel — a Princeton-educated bartender at Anvil — is somewhat of a local authority on Houston's ethnic enclaves, leading impromptu food crawls around Little India or group dining adventures to the Korean restaurants on Long Point.

The mild and the mala: Four Joy Lion's Head and red oil wontons.
Troy Fields
The mild and the mala: Four Joy Lion's Head and red oil wontons.

Location Info


Mala Sichuan Bistro

9348 Bellaire
Houston, TX 77036

Category: Restaurant > Chinese

Region: Outer Loop - SW


11 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily.
Dan Dan noodles: $4.95
Funky stick chicken: $5.95
Couple's Lung Slices: $6.95
Water-boiled beef: $10.95
Spicy and Crispy Chicken: $10.95
Four Joy Lion's Head: $10.95
Tea-smoked duck: $12.95
Mala Pot Roasted Tilapia: $16.95

SLIDESHOW: Mala Sichuan Bistro: Prosper at 5 AM
BLOG POST: Prosper at 5 AM: The Stories Behind the Dishes at Mala Sichuan Bistro

Frankel pulled a crumpled to-go menu from his pocket and smoothed it out on the table. He's been checking off dishes one by one as he orders them here; nearly half of the 120 dishes on the menu were checked off. He and I share a joint obsession with Mala Sichuan these days, but this Tuesday's lunch was the first time we'd dined there together.

We ordered based on what neither of us had yet tried: Four Joy Lion's Head and a bowl of Couple's Lung Slices. Most of the dishes here share similar, wonderfully whimsical names like these, such as Top Notch Pot of the Outlaws or Prosper at 5 AM. Some, like the Couple's Lung Slices, have nothing at all to do with the actual ingredients; Couple's Lung Slices is actually thin, impossibly tender slices of beef tendons, kidney and tripe in a blindingly red chile oil that's a signature staple of Sichuan cuisine.

And the Four Joy Lion's Head, it turns out, is comprised of four softball-size pork meatballs in a ginger-and-garlic-spiked brown sauce that was one of the more mild dishes I've had at Mala Sichuan. I don't know how the meatballs are both so massive and so thoroughly cooked without being rubbery or tough or even a bit burned; they're blissfully soft and savory all the way through. I broke off pieces of my gigantic meatball and dragged them through the smooth ginger sauce between bites of spicy tendon, the meatballs acting as a nice balance to the numbing spice of the chile oil.

Frankel said that he likes Sichuan cuisine for the same reasons he likes Pakistani food: It's meaty, it's intense, it's in-your-face. And that's exactly how owner Cori Xiong likes it.

The 26-year-old Xiong and her husband, 25-year-old Heng Chen, run Mala Sichuan Bistro together. Both are recent University of Texas graduates — Xiong with a degree in economics — but decided to open a restaurant so they could work for themselves. Xiong is originally from Dallas, and her father runs a popular Sichuan restaurant of his own in Plano: Little Sichuan Cuisine, also known as Lao Xiong — or Old Bear — in Sichuanese Mandarin.

It's a name that many of her customers immediately recognized from the Chinese name for her own restaurant: Xiao Xiong, or Little Bear. "Chinese people in Texas travel a lot; they know what the good restaurants in Dallas and Austin are," says Xiong. "If they travel to Dallas, they know Old Bear Sichuan Cuisine. It rings a bell when they see Little Bear."

The average customer at Mala Sichuan Bistro is Chinese, and the place gets especially crowded around high noon and during the evening dinner rush. It's difficult to find more authentic Sichuan food in Houston, or Sichuan food of a higher quality. Xiong attributes this to two things: Her insistence on importing certain ingredients, such as the famous Sichuan peppercorn. ("Spice is very, very important" in Sichuan cuisine, Xiong says, and the peppercorn is the quintessential Sichuan spice.) And then there's the fact that — unlike very many other places in town — she's hired a team of actual Sichuan cooks to work the kitchen and create authentic Sichuan dishes.

It's clear that Xiong is inordinately proud of her team, too, boasting that they all graduated from "the most well-known culinary academy in ­Sichuan Province" and that one of them famously "won a national bronze medal back in China at the Great Hall of People" for his whole-roasted tilapia.

Xiong is part of that Americanized second generation of ethnic restaurateurs in Houston who — like Minh Nguyen at Cafe TH or Sharan Gahunia at Raja Sweets — proudly combine their own heritage and traditions with a more Western aesthetic and service model to produce some of the best and most unique Chinese, Vietnamese and Indian restaurants in the city. Mala itself outdoes its local Chinatown competition on almost every level, from the pared-down decor to the hyper-clean bathrooms, from the brisk flavors to the attentive service.

The decor and cleanliness were two of the things that first attracted Xiong to this little corner space in the Metropole Center, just a few doors down from other favorites like Yummy Kitchen and Six Ping Bakery. "I felt that this restaurant is decorated pretty well," she says. "It matches what I'm trying to do with our restaurant. It's traditional, casual, clean."

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Oh this is so awesome. Since I moved to Chengdu, I've been telling everyone here that one of the new "in" cuisines in Houston is Sichuanese. Now I have more evidence! I guess this means I'll have to check it out next time I'm back in town to see how it compares to the real deal here in Sichuan. One thing's for sure, the hygiene isn't authentic, but it's definitely a welcome variance! :)


The Lion's Head meatballs cooked by sauting them for only a few minutes to seal in the juices and then they are steamed/braised in the broth. I am a bit puzzled, no General Tso's Chicken? Could that Crispy and Spicy Chicken be General Tso's Chicken by some other name? Sounds like it.


You really can't call anything past Chimney Rock "in Bellaire," much less something almost to the Beltway. It makes much more sense to write "new favorite on Bellaire Blvd."


Nice work Katherine good review, finally somewhere I'll actually eat at/set foot inside..


I love this restaurant. The staff is very friendly and helpful and Cori is an excellent host!


Attyrose3 - troll much? You're an ass.

Katharine Shilcutt
Katharine Shilcutt

Funny. Trisch is right; the Crispy and Spicy chicken is exactly the dish she described.


General Tso's Chicken wouldn't make sense on their menu. It's an American adaptation of Hunan style cooking. I'm wondering if the Crispy and Spicy Chicken might be a variation on Sichuan's La Zi Ji, which is a chopped up whole chicken (bones and all) flash fried with copious amounts of chili peppers and Sichuan peppercorns -- so many peppers that you have to hunt for the chicken pieces.


I see nothing here that justifies a comment like that, hardly a comment made by what I'd consider a gentleman.