Sichuan Bucket List
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.
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."
Xiong moved to Houston from Austin specifically to open Mala Sichuan Bistro. She gave it that name so that others would know that this Sichuan restaurant means business: "Ma means numbing and la means spicy," she explains. "Sichuan Chinese food is renowned for being mala. That is the very, very unique flavor in all of Chinese cuisine. And only Sichuan people eat a lot of mala."
That trademark mala flavor is on ample display in dishes like the flaming hot red oil wontons or the creamy yet maddeningly spicy water-boiled beef, both very traditional Sichuan dishes that aren't for the faint of tongue. However, that doesn't mean the menu at Mala Sichuan is inaccessible to the average diner.
Cumin beef here — just as at Chinese Sichuan Cuisine down the street — is the perfect gateway drug for Texans wary of spicy Sichuan food. The warm, musky cumin flavor in the soft shreds of beef is close enough to "Chinese fajitas" to get people's feet in the door. This is one of the dishes I always order for trepidatious newcomers, like the group I had with me one recent evening, including my grandmother, who doesn't usually like much spice.
After priming her palate with cumin beef and Mala's sweetly nutty dan dan noodles with a crumbled layer of soft ground pork on top, we dove right into the spicier dishes like red oil rabbit. The rabbit is tough to eat — there are too many little bones and cartilaginous pieces to work through — but the bright, sharp chile oil makes the difficulty nearly worth it. Just remember to watch out for stray drops of the viscous oil, which have stained nearly every shirt I've worn here.
My grandmother trooped bravely through the array of dishes presented to her, choosing the dan dan noodles as her favorite of the night. Although, she laughed as she wiped her eyes and nose for the hundredth time that night, "You need to bring Kleenex to eat here." She hadn't liked the tea-smoked duck, which surprised me, as the rich, smokey flavor of the duck is — like the cumin beef — a bridge to more "Texan" food. But I loved it, all crispy skin and softly rendered fat melting into the dark, smoke-saturated meat.
I found my very favorite dishes on another visit, however, both of them wonderfully and intensely piquant: Spicy and Crispy Chicken, popcorn-size nuggets of fried dark meat chicken tossed with bright-red peppers that reminded me of bite-size Korean fried chicken from Toreore; and the charmingly named Funky Stick Chicken, which was a shade less spicy and tempered with a sweet, nutty flavor and a sprinkling of sesame seeds on top.
On that visit, I watched as several tables ordered from the live tilapia section of the menu and a cook dipped his net into the fish tanks in the back to retrieve one of the fat, spotted fish. Most of them ended up served as Mala Pot Roasted Tilapia. I didn't get to try it, so I asked Xiong about it. She says it's the restaurant's best dish, despite freshly killed fish not being a Sichuan speciality.
"People usually don't eat live fish or live seafood at Sichuan Chinese restaurants," Xiong confirms. "They do it at Cantonese restaurants, because that's what they're good at." This doesn't prevent Mala Sichuan from selling anywhere from 40 to 50 live tilapia a day, though. ''That's pretty abnormal for a Sichuan restaurant," Xiong admits. But she's happy if her customers are happy.
The Mala Pot Roasted Tilapia is cooked with whole red chiles and Sichuan peppercorns, "the spiciest dish on our whole menu," Xiong says. "It's very mala but also very sweet at the end."
And it's the next dish that I'll be ticking off on my own Mala Sichuan to-go menu checklist, a food-lover's dance card that's happily filled for now.
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