Local Spotlight

Prosper at 5 AM: The Stories Behind the Dishes at Mala Sichuan Bistro

Prosper at 5 AM.

Top Notch Pot of the Outlaws.

Four Joy Lion Head.

Couple's Lung Slices.

Ants on the Tree.

Mala Sichuan Bistro -- the subject of this week's cafe review -- has some of the most creatively named dishes in Chinatown on its menu, most of them under the House Specials section of the vast menu.

But there is a method to the madness.

Some of the whimsical names are visually descriptive of the dish itself: The classic Sichuan dish Ants on the Tree, for example, refers to the way in which pieces of ground beef cling to cooked glass noodles like ants climbing up sticks.

Others, as Mala's owner Cori Xiong explained to me one afternoon, are literal translations of the Chinese name, such as the Top Notch Pot of the Outlaws. "I dropped the Chinese name into a forum [of other Chinese-Americans] and they had several suggestions," said the 26-year-old Xiong, who runs the restaurant with her husband. "Top Notch Pot of the Outlaws was the one I liked best."

Prosper at 5 AM, Xiong explained, is actually an ancient Sichuan meal named for a god who created the dish to be eaten at 5 a.m. on the Chinese New Year for good luck.

Couple's Lung Dish doesn't contain any actual lung, but is also a traditional Sichuan dish featuring gauzy, thin slices of marinated beef tripe, tendon and kidney in a stunningly red chile oil. The name is -- like Top Notch Pot of the Outlaws -- one of many translations of the original Chinese name, which translates literally into the much less appealing "sliced lung by the married couple."

Even the name of the restaurant itself has meaning to it: "Ma means numbing and la means spicy," Xiong explained to me. "Sichuan Chinese food is renowned for being mala. That is the very, very unique flavor in all of Chinese cuisine."

When Xiong moved here from Austin to open Mala Sichuan Bistro, she chose that name so that other Chinese would know that this Sichuan restaurant means business: "Only Sichuan people eat a lot of mala."

To learn more about this bright new addition to Chinatown, check out this week's cafe review of Mala Sichuan Bistro, then head into the kitchen to see Xiong's team of all-Sichuan chefs at work.

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Katharine Shilcutt