The mapo tofu at Cooking Girl is a powerful reminder of why there’s a variety of bean curd called “silken.” The large white cubes are as soft and yielding as fresh butter. Of course, the flavor is quite neutral — all the better for ferrying the powerful doubanjiang sauce, a combination of salty, slightly pungent broad beans and spicy red chile oil. There’s more than a little minced garlic added, as well as fermented black beans and a dash of sliced onion tops that add a touch of green to all the red and white. Everything is seasoned with Sichuan peppercorn — enough to lend a tingling sensation on the tongue. The only complaint is that neither chopsticks nor a fork is sufficient for scooping up such soft tofu or such a wonderful sauce. The dish demands a spoon.
A server at Cooking Girl told us the restaurant has no relationship to the previous tenant in that space. That’s good, considering the predecessor, sushi restaurant Akamaru, had the ignoble distinction of receiving the worst Houston Press review of 2015.
Even the vibe seems to have improved, although the space hasn’t changed much and the old sushi counter is still sitting where it was, used now only for extra seating. The change in atmosphere is due to the warm, helpful staff. There can occasionally be a bit of a language barrier, but that doesn’t stop the friendly ladies and gentlemen from coaching diners through the menu (which isn’t very descriptive, save the names), even gently cajoling customers over their choices and making sure their selection is really what they want. Go once, and don’t be surprised if the staff welcomes you as a previous customer when you walk back through the door.
In other words, it’s as if Cooking Girl had been plucked from Houston’s Chinatown and set down in the Montrose — staff, menu and all. There are two sides to the menu: the Sichuan side and the American-Chinese side. That’s very useful, since the American-Chinese side gives less adventurous diners some familiar options. However, that’s not what Cooking Girl does best, and the servers are happy to tell you that. “That’s good for you,” one lady laughingly joked about an inquiry on the orange beef. “That’s not so good for me.” It was still an acceptable rendition of the dish, albeit not the best.
The superior dishes are on the Sichuan side of the menu, which admittedly reads like a subset of Mala Sichuan Bistro’s, the Montrose location of the original Chinatown favorite. The atmosphere is totally different, though. Mala’s two-story restaurant, where Dua used to be (formerly Mo Mong) is more ornate, and Cooking Girl is a simple cafe. That means when it comes to Sichuan food in the Montrose, there are now two very good choices.
Anyone who enjoys the special hot and numbing tingle of Sichuan peppercorns will find much to love about Cooking Girl’s dishes. The spice makes frequent appearances, from a substantial addition to the slippery, translucent Broken Heart jelly noodles to a powerful amount in the spicy, rustic “Super Cubic!” That last one sounds like the title of the anime that might star the restaurant’s adorable, pan-wielding mascot, but it is in fact a remarkably balanced, interesting cubed beef dish.
It looks a little frightening when it hits the table, as belligerent, deep red dried Thai peppers make up a quarter of the dish. Only the most hell-bent chile heads should attempt to eat these. The rest of us should carefully scoot them to the side and instead go after the dark, dense, peppery chunks of beef, which are pleasantly hot, not insane. Part of what makes this dish so successful is the inclusion of barely sautéed chunks of celery. The fresh crunch helps tame the heat. Whether or not a person will enjoy the slices of fresh, warm garlic will depend on his or her feelings on both its flavor and any dining companions. By the way, savory dishes come with a vat of warm white rice with its own paddle for scooping it out.
The beef salad called Mr. & Mrs. Smith is a clever renaming of the popular Sichuan dish fuqi feipian, whose name means “married couple’s offal slices.” That sounds delicious, right? No? Well, it’s better than it sounds. In the 1930s, a couple in Chengdu became known for their tasty cold beef slices. Mischievous children would tag the man and wife with notes that read “fuqi feipian.” (“Fei” means “lung,” specifically, pork lung.) A merchant tried the dish and was so impressed, he gave the couple a plaque with “fuqi feipian” written in golden characters. The name stuck and the dish has been called that ever since.
Cooking Girl’s version is made with slices of beef and ox tongue. For $11.99, it’s quite a helping of well-sauced, garlicky beef and it’s not overly spicy. A vegetable on the side, like the dry-fried green beans, would be quite appropriate.
The classic Sichuan sauce combination of red chile oil, garlic, black beans and peppercorns shows up in many dishes and does become tiresome if too many similar dishes are ordered, so it’s important to get a variety. Those in the mood for something light and mild, yet still flavorful, will appreciate the brothy, savory oxtail tomato soup. A “small” is enough for two to share as a light appetizer. There’s some work involved in coaxing the meat off the bony oxtail chunks, but the effort is worthwhile.
There do not appear to be any desserts at Cooking Girl. None are on the menu and none are offered by the servers. There are green bean smoothies and corn milk on the menu, but these will not do. They taste exactly as they sound: blended vegetables and milk. These are for purists. People with a sweet tooth might meander over to Cuchara or Max’s Wine Dive across the street for dessert and coffee.
Cooking Girl serves a selection of herbal teas. These are quite good, albeit served crudely. The whole herbs and tea leaves are placed into a glass — whether the drink is served hot or cold — and water is poured over them. Sometimes that works fine, as in the case of the Dr. Lee tea, which has goji berries and slices of hawthorn berry floating on top. It’s fun to catch one of the berries and chew on it. The rose tea, full of dried tea blossoms at the top, was especially beautiful.
Other times, the serving style doesn’t work well. That was the case with the hot green and jasmine version, in which the little leaves were apt to become an annoyance, especially closer to the bottom of the glass. When it comes to fine tea, it may be a better idea to spring for a “jar” than a “cup” to keep those leaves at the bottom where they belong.
Alternately, skip the tea altogether and take advantage of the reasonable BYOB fee. Corkage is $4.99 for wine and 99 cents for beer.
At Cooking Girl, the prices of main dishes seem to average $2 higher per dish than Mala Sichuan’s — but they are stellar renditions and the portions are quite large. Four people can have an absolute feast for $65 and fill the entire table with food. Three would have leftovers unless they’re teenagers or athletes or haven’t eaten in two days.
Cooking Girl’s humble abode is a welcoming environment for exploring the tongue-tingling wonders of Sichuan cuisine. Diners who appreciate dishes that do not apologize for their spice-laden roots will be quite pleased. Two restaurants serving great Sichuan in the Montrose isn’t too many. It’s just right.
315 Fairview, 832-649-7175. Hours: 11:45 a.m. to 9 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays; 11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays.
Oxtail tomato soup (small) $5.99
Broken Heart jelly noodle $5.99
Mapo tofu $8.99
Super Cubic! (hot hot fried beef cube) $12.99
Fried spicy chicken cube $11.99
Orange beef $12.99
Rosebud tea $2.99
Dr. Lee (hawthorn) tea $2.99
Green bean smoothie $2.99
Sweet corn milk $2.99