This year leading up to our annual Best of Houston® issue, we're counting down our 100 favorite dishes in Houston. This list comprises our favorite dishes from the last year, dishes that are essential to Houston's cultural landscape and/or dishes that any visitor (or resident) should try at least once.
I was addicted to ma po tofu from the first time I tried a dish of the real stuff at Yummy Kitchen, a Taiwanese restaurant that shares space with Mala Sichuan in the Metropole shopping center in Chinatown. But even as a ma po neophyte, I knew that the ruddy dish of ground pork, tofu, ginger and scallions was missing a vital piece: the numbing heat of Sichuan peppercorns.
Thankfully, you can find those peppercorns in spades right next door at Mala Sichuan. It's appropriate for a place whose name literally translates to "numbing" (ma, or 麻) and "spicy" (la, or 辣). If a restaurant named after mala sauce and Sichuan cuisine didn't offer some truly mind-blowing heat in its dishes, I can't imagine it'd last too long in the ultra-competitive boundaries of Houston's vibrant Chinatown. Instead, Mala Sichuan has become one of the area's hottest restaurants -- no pun intended -- since opening in early 2011.
As it's one of the flagship dishes of Sichuan cuisine, it's only fitting that ma po tofu is also one of Mala Sichuan's best dishes. Both ma and la are found in great quantities in the dark red, steaming bowl of thick, jiggly tofu cubes and sweet pork that are brought to the table. After only a couple of bites, you'll notice that signature white-hot, palate-cleansing heat from the mala sauce -- a unique kind of heat that's like turning your mouth inside out and immersing it in ice-cold water. It's shocking and sudden and oddly invigorating. And after a few minutes, it's gone and you're ready for another round.
To keep the fun going, I recommend ordering a few dishes that don't have that numbing heat to them: the sweetly nutty Funky Stick Chicken, for example, or the Four Joy Lion's Head, four softball-size pork meatballs in a ginger-and-garlic-spiked brown sauce. Besides allowing your tastebuds a rest between swan dives into that gloriously spicy mala sauce, the array of flavors will let you appreciate your ma po tofu that much more.
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The list so far:
No. 100: Chili cheese mac at Jus' Mac No. 99: Texas turkey sandwich at Spec's No. 98: Custard at Petite Sweets No. 97: Caprichos mixtos at Taqueria Monterrey Chiquito No. 96: Pineapple-wasabi burger at Lankford Grocery No. 95: Farmer's MKT Pizza at Phoenicia's MKT Bar No. 94: Potatoes at Money Cat Brunch No. 93: Breakfast tacos at Sunrise Taquito No. 92: Hot dog at Tacos D.F. No. 91: Avocado gelato at Frozen Cafe No. 90: Chicken sandwich at JerryBuilt Homegrown Burgers No. 89: Beer-battered asparagus at Hearsay No. 88: Honey Badger omelet at Kraftsmen Cafe No. 87: Pastelitos de carne at El Jalapeño No. 86: Pancakes at Union Kitchen No. 85: Wild boar and crab pizza at Boheme No. 84: Breakfast croissant at BB Donuts No. 83: Pretzel at Anvil Bar & Refuge No. 82: Short rib sandwich at Shepherd Park Draught House No. 81: Grilled shrimp po-boy at Pappadeaux No. 80: Dahi puri at Shiv Sagar No. 79: Aporreado at Los Corrales No. 78: Oxtail francobolli at Aldo's Cucina Italiana No. 77: Tonkotsu at Cafe Kubo's No. 76: Spinach danish from Angela's Oven No. 75: Pupusas at El Petate No. 74: Pheasant dog at Sammy's Wild Game Grill No. 73: X-Tudo burger at Friends Pizzeria No. 72: Esparragos gratinados at Tintos No. 71: Gua bao at Yummy Kitchen No. 70: Geisha dog at Happy Endings No. 69: Oyster po-boy and gumbo at Goode Co. Seafood No. 68: Ceviche at Sirena Seafood No. 67: Caldo de mariscos at Taqueria Arandas No. 66: Banana pudding at Pizzitola's No. 65: Fried catfish and gumbo at Cafe-A-La No. 64: Soft-shell crabs at Banana Leaf No. 63: Macaroni and cheese at Vic & Anthony's Steakhouse No. 62: Torta burger at El Gran Malo No. 61: Black bean burger at Ziggy's No. 60: Parillada at Pampa Grill No. 59: Peanut butter and jalapeño jelly burger at Wicked Whisk No. 58: Eggplant involtini at Giacomo's Cibo e Vino No. 57: Lone Star dog at James Coney Island No. 56: Sushi at Sushi Miyagi No. 55: Palestinian chicken at Al Aseel No. 54: Roast beef sandwich at Local Foods No. 53: Mexico City plate at Molina's Cantina No. 52: Tacos at Brothers Taco House No. 51: Branzino at Lucio's BYOB No. 50: Beef sweetbreads at Feast No. 49: Golden Doomba Special at the Rice Box Truck No. 48: Malted waffle at City Cafe No. 47: Banh mi bo kho at Cafe TH No. 46: Chicken fried steak at Triple A No. 45: Larissa plate at Harry's No. 44: Spaghetti carbonara at Coppa Ristorante Italiano No. 43: Wings and grits at The Breakfast Klub No. 42: Frito pie at C&D Burger Shoppe No. 41: Pollo con mole at El Gallo de Jalisco No. 40: Fried avocado taco at H-Town StrEATs No. 39: Rigatoni in bolognese sauce at Paulie's No. 38: Chorizo kolaches at Peña's Donut Heaven No. 37: Sashimi at Dadami No. 36: Half-pound burger at benjy's No. 35: Fried chicken at Haven No. 34: Whole-fried speckled trout at Liberty Kitchen No. 33: Moules congolaise at Jeannine's Bistro No. 32: Pancakes at Fountain View Cafe No. 31: Pineapple with chile en polvo at Canino's No. 30: Fried chicken at Barbecue Inn No. 29: Dirty Burque at Green Seed Vegan No. 28: Egusi at Finger Licking Bukateria No. 27: Brisket and turkey at CorkScrew BBQ No. 26: Menudo at La Mexicana No. 25: Shrimp and grits at Shade No. 24: Kinilaw at Reef No. 23: Lamb at El Hidalguense No. 22: Gumbo at Danton's No. 21: Chicken-fried water buffalo at The Hay Merchant No. 20: Roasted cauliflower at Roost No. 19: Truffled egg toast at Dolce Vita No. 18: 63-degree egg at Brasserie 19 No. 17: Drunken foie gras at Philippe No. 16: Beet salad at Triniti No. 15: Yogi thali at Pondicheri No. 14: Bialy and lox at The Hot Bagel Shop No. 13: Ribs at Gatlin's No. 12: Venison carpaccio at Thanh Phuong No. 11: Camarones henesy en hamaca at Arturo Boada Cuisine No. 10: Prosciutto and arugula pizza at Pizaro's Pizza Napoletana No. 9: Crawfish at The Hideaway on Dunvale No. 8: Pho at Pho Binh No. 7: Ceviche at La Fisheria