On the Road

Mala Sichuan's Big Sister Disappoints in Dallas

Visiting family in Dallas this weekend, I found myself with a little down time to explore a city I very nearly grew up in but know very little about. I spent my summers as a kid split into three very different settings: Houston, Dallas and a cattle ranch in Henderson, and only eating out in one of those places. Extended summer visits in Dallas meant endless amazing meals at my Meemo's house, so why venture out into the city when there were fresh pies and dumplings right in the kitchen?

Even as an adult, I'd rather eat my grandmother's cooking when I'm in Dallas than go anywhere else. But this weekend, my buddy Chris Frankel reminded me of something I'd forgotten about the Big D:

"You should visit the Sichuan place owned by the parents of MaLa's owners," Frankel nudged me. "That's #1 on my Dallas wishlist."

Mala Sichuan was the subject of one of my more positive reviews last December, and its owner -- Cori Xiong -- came by her Sichuan expertise through her father, also a restaurateur and proprietor of the popular Little Sichuan Cuisine north of Plano.

"Chinese people in Texas travel a lot; they know what the good restaurants in Dallas and Austin are," Xiong told me last year. "If they travel to Dallas, they know Old Bear Sichuan Cuisine. It rings a bell when they see Little Bear."

This is where it gets a bit confusing: Little Sichuan Cuisine's name in Sichuanese Mandarin is Lao Xiong, or Old Bear. Here in Houston, Mala Sichuan's name in Sichuanese Mandarin is Xiao Xiong, or Little Bear. Little Bear (Mala Sichuan) is Old Bear's (Little Sichuan's) little sister. Still following? Good.

Eager to see if Mala Sichuan's big sister restaurant, run by Xiong's father, was as good as his daughter's restaurant in Houston, I gathered up my counterpart in Dallas -- Observer food critic Scott Reitz -- and we made the trek north.

On the way there, I babbled to Reitz about how amazing Mala is: the clean, brisk flavors; the striking brashness of the red chile oil that coats half the dishes; the way that the Sichuan peppercorns Xiong's cooks use assault your tongue like you just thrust your head into a bowl of ice water; the numerous authentic plates with loopy names like Couples Lung Slices and Top Notch Pot of the Outlaws. I think Reitz, for his part, was just happy to have a ride to Plano -- the man owns only a Vespa...in the Metroplex. Pray for him.

Even before eating, though, I had a bad feeling about Little Sichuan Cuisine. There were very few tables occupied, and one of them was entirely composed of Anglos that Reitz stared at in fascination as one man messily ate noodles, arm extended on high like a sword swallower. We moved to order a dish from the very Americanized menu that had three little chile peppers next to it, and the waiter tried to warn us away.

"I want to weep when I eat that tofu," said Reitz, in an effort to sway the dubious waiter. His argument was clearly unconvincing, however: The soft tofu and Napa cabbage came out in a fiery red broth, but it produced little noticeable heat aside from a few stray sniffles. The chilled noodles with cucumber were similarly lackluster, the noodles possessed of an odd mealy texture.

Only the third dish, in my opinion, salvaged the meal -- and it was hardly a dish. An appetizer of chilled beef tendon in red chile oil triggered that same part of my brain that lights up like a Price Is Right game when I eat at Mala Sichuan. The tendons were soft and pliant but had just enough of a snap to make them fun to eat, and imparted a rich, meaty flavor to the bright chile oil. Despite the excellent tendons, I was incredibly disappointed to have driven all this way for an Americanized menu and low-impact flavors.

I felt bad for Reitz more than myself, as I knew he'd been craving a good Sichuanese restaurant in Dallas; Little Sichuan Cuisine isn't it. But the day wasn't entirely lost. After prowling around a couple of Asian grocery stores nearby, we found something else he'd been searching for: powdered pho base.

Is the instant stuff any good? I'll be lurking around City of Ate's blog this week to find out. In the meantime, I'd recommend taking Little Sichuan Cuisine off of anyone's Dallas bucket list. Maybe you can stop by my Meemo's house, though.

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Katharine Shilcutt