"I'll have the treasure chest cereal, the empress ribs, the golden coin omelet, the pork hock with bok choy, and the point and kill mouthwatering chicken." This was our initial order, which was quickly followed by "Just add the congee to that. Oh, and the calamondin cake donut and the sichuan peppercorn dark chocolate donut."
It was Sunday morning at approximately 11 a.m. at Mala Sichuan Bistro. David Buehrer of Blacksmith Coffee and his partner in the as-yet unnamed upcoming donut shop, Carlos Ballon, had organized a pop-up Chinese breakfast and donut brunch with Mala's Cory Xiong. Dubbed "Mala By Morning," Buehrer said he'd been wanting to do something with Mala since they'd participated in the an evening pop-up event at Blacksmith last summer.
The menu consisted of 10 dishes that were mostly by Mala, donuts by Buehrer and Ballon, and drinks (coffee and tea) by Blacksmith. "I had to convince them to do it," Buehrer says of the menu, which consisted primarily of simple items that would make up a Chinese breakfast at home that one wouldn't find on a restaurant menu. He said that Xiong and her husband resisted the idea of doing it because the food is what they consider typical breakfast food, nothing fancy.
Once he persuaded him that his idea would work, "I collaborated on 1.25 of the dishes. I suggested that they add the steamed buns to the pork hock dish, and I also helped create the 'shrimp and grits,' a play on Southern shrimp and grits made of Mala's spicy-salty Chengdu prawns and a taro root puree."
The menu was written in Chinese, phonetically spelled out in English, with English translations. The "Point and kill mouthwatering chicken" was probably the most eye-catching dish, so named because in China, you point at the chicken you're going to eat, and then kill it. It was a cold steamed chicken served in a red oil sauce that looked like it would be very spicy, but in actuality was quite mild.
My companion and I ended up ordering the entire menu (We skipped the smoked duck head, feet and wings but my companion took an order to-go), and demolished most of it in less than 30 minutes. The treasure chest cereal reminded me of Vietnamese che, a type of soup-y dessert dish typical in Asian countries. A cloudy, viscous, lightly fermented, lightly sweetened broth containing fruit cocktail peaches, hard boiled quail eggs, rice, and what looked like egg drops, it exhibited this slightly sour quality that was different. It's not necessarily something one would crave, but it was unusual with complex flavors, and quite memorable.
The most spectacular dish was probably the pork hock. Braised until tender and served with bok choy, Buehrer had persuaded them to serve the dish with steamed bao buns so that one could make small bao sandwiches. It arrived with a bowl of red chili sauce on the side, the effect similar to how one might eat Peking duck, but less savory, and without the crispy skin. A small plate of dark green Asian pickles and peanuts and fermented soy was served with a simple rice congee. We stuffed the green pickled inside the bao to cut through some of the pork hock's fattiness.
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This is what's so great about eating family style, the way Asians do. You can take parts of dishes and meld them together, eat them together or combine them in different ways -- and there is no right or wrong. Although, wrong would be plopping the entire block of fermented soy into your mouth (nasty headrush!), instead of eating in small bits with the your congee. The food didn't come with an instruction manual that morning, and, absent instruction from our waiter, this cultural faux-pas did happen.
To complement the meal, Blacksmith offered a couple of specialty teas and coffees, including a delicious five-spice flat white, lightly sweetened, with a hint of Asian flavor. And for dessert? Doughnuts. Though there were two flavors, the sichuan peppercorn valrhona glazed chocolate doughnut was the big hit of the afternoon -- spongy yet dense, the chocolate topping ultra smooth and shiny, with enough peppercorn to give it personality. Ballon, who spent the better part of three months learning how to make doughnuts from a master doughnut maker, says he plans to feature specialty and farm fresh ingredients in all of his donuts, so stay tuned.