Sociology and Sichuan Peppercorns at Mala Sichuan Bistro

Dining out with children is an exercise in situational awareness. Each experience is unique, with different variables leading to different possible outcomes, DEFCON-like in their escalating threat levels. Keen observation, forward planning and prior experience are critical in determining the proper strategy. Here at DEFCON Dining, we do the grunt work for you. It ain't always pretty.

Mala Sichuan Bistro was packed at 7 p.m. the day after Christmas. I had been concerned about taking the kids, as they've been in a bit of a "no new foods" funk of late, and I wasn't sure how they'd respond. As the delicious scents of the dining room hit our noses, each of them perking up and involuntarily sniffing into the tantalizing wind, my concerns were laid to rest. "It smells amazing in here," enthused my oldest. Even my notoriously picky six-year-old nodded in agreement, an encouraging gleam in her eye.

As we waited for a table, back in the slightly chilly foyer, the kids' curiosity further piqued by the boisterous scene inside the dining room, my daughter made an interesting if unsurprising comment. "We're the only people here who aren't Chinese," she observed. "Sometimes, I don't feel as comfortable when nobody else is American."

Fearing the first wave of discontent, I asked her what she meant. Gesturing into the loud and jolly dining room, filled with the din of foreign conversations, she told me that it bothered her a little when she couldn't understand what anyone was saying. "I just feel like American people are more normal sometimes, and our language is more normal," she mused.

I agreed with her that it can be a little uncomfortable to be surrounded by the foreign, but that it could also be exciting. She nodded her head slightly, a contemplative look on her face. "I bet people from other places, who speak Chinese or other languages, think that they're more normal, so I guess nobody's really normal. It just depends what you're used to."

We went on to discuss how it was entirely likely that most or even all of the other diners in the restaurant, language notwithstanding, were Americans just as much as we were, and that sharing disparate cultural experiences was not only important but an integral part of our American culture, as mongrelized as we are. At the end of it, she decided not to feel uncomfortable anymore, and I was impressed with the manner in which she'd thought through the matter.

Less impressive was her younger sister's response to being presented with a "baby plate," the only one at the table to be handed such ignominious service-ware. For some reason, the logical approach of "you throwing a fit about the plate is just going to reinforce their belief that you are a baby" had no effect but to encourage her to slide from her seat and pout under the table. She's a small thing, and sensitive about her size, so I can understand the sensitivity. Peace was restored by the simple request for a "normal" plate for her, and she rejoined us as we perused the menu.

I'd cobbled together a list of suggestions from Twitter and previous takes on Mala, including a handful of dishes better suited to my children's more sensitive palates, and we rounded those out with some items that struck our fancy.

Of the ad hoc orders, my wife's selection of Konjac Duck Stew ended up being the underdog favorite. We were warned off of it by our waitress, citing the jellied texture of the konjac -- a gel made from the root-like stem of a flowering perennial -- as being difficult for many Americans.

We found quite the opposite, the konjac being mostly ignorable, with a the texture of soft, slightly gritty Fun Fruits and very little flavor. The rest of the dish was stellar. Not at all spicy, but deeply flavored with nubby bits of bone-in duck (legs, I think) and a lovely and unexpected anise flavor that reminded me, more than anything, of Texas tarragon. It was delicious, and the table (even the kids) gnawed the meat from the bones happily.

The Water Boiled Beef (easily one of the world's great food name vs. reality dichotomies), whose texture made most uses of the word "silken" seem like unpardonable abuse of the English language, was a close second. Its bloom of heat and prickle -- undercut at every turn by that wily Sichuan peppercorn -- created a sort of kaleidoscopic flavor sensation, seeming to ripple and flow like some sort of olfactory optical illusion. It was my first go at that dish, and it won't be my last.

The kids found favor with the Red Oil Dumplings, amazing me with their tolerance for the not insignificant heat, and with the Dan Dan Noodles. Of the latter, my older daughter would slurp a bite, pant for a bit, then dig in for more. The only semi-bomb of the night was that same girl's order of Original Wonton Soup, a dish I tried to dissuade her from ordering. After declaring its broth essentially tasteless, but the wontons pretty good, she offered me the grudging admission that I'd been right all along, before forking another cold, bacon-wrapped cucumber roll into her mouth and crunching merrily, sucking in little bursts of air every few seconds.

It wound up being one of the best family restaurant experiences we've had in a while. Not only was the food delicious, but the entire experience gave us opportunities to talk, teach, and share. The kids left asking when we'd come back, expressing interest in learning a few words of Chinese, just for kicks. And to think I'd been worried.

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Nicholas L. Hall is a husband and father who earns his keep playing a video game that controls the U.S. power grid. He also writes for the Houston Press about food, booze and music, in an attempt to keep the demons at bay. When he's not busy keeping your lights on, he can usually be found making various messes in the kitchen, with apologies to his wife.
Contact: Nicholas L. Hall