The “garlic bacon” appetizer at Mala Sichuan Bistro was my introduction to Chinese charcuterie. The small plate of appetizer rolls featured thin strips of lardo-like cured pork fat rolled around wilted cucumbers and drizzled with red chile oil seasoned with garlic. The little bacon-cucumber rolls were much lighter than I expected, but it was the oil that really got my attention.
Mala Sichuan Bistro
9348 Bellaire Blvd.
Cori Xiong, the young co-owner of Mala Sichuan on Bellaire in Chinatown, is proud of her restaurant’s cutting-edge food. For appetizers, she recommended the garlic-bacon rolls plus “chillin’ cucumber,” which is a simple salad of baby cucumber and sesame oil, and “funky chicken sticks,” a pile of shredded chicken and green onions tossed in a sesame vinaigrette made with the same spicy oil.
This red oil is better known as mala sauce. The harmonious marriage of ma and la is the signature taste of Sichuan food. American Sichuan fare has never suffered from a shortage of “la” (Chinese for the spicy fire of peppers). What’s been missing for many years is the “ma” (the tingly, numbing sensation imparted by Sichuan peppercorns).
Sichuan peppercorns are carriers of citrus canker virus, harmless to humans but a potential threat to citrus trees. The U.S. banned the spice from 1968 through 2005, when a treatment to kill the virus was approved.
When the importation of Sichuan peppercorns resumed eight years ago, culinary thrill-seekers saw the peppercorns as some kind of new drug for the taste buds. The palates of overeager consumers continued buzzing for days. But in the last few years, a new generation of Sichuan restaurants has brought Americans a more sophisticated take on the spice.
Cori Xiong grew up in Sichuan. Her husband and business partner Heng is from Manchuria, and the two met in Austin while attending the University of Texas. When they decided to open a restaurant in Houston’s Chinatown, Xiong’s father, a food engineer, helped the couple find a chef from Sichuan. The young restaurant owners played it safe by offering a few Americanized Chinese dishes along with the exciting stuff they really wanted to serve.
As the restaurant gained a following among Asian food lovers and adventurous eaters, the owners began to cross items off the menu. It’s amusing to read the names under the black marker lines: sweet and sour chicken, lemon chicken, orange chicken, General Tso’s chicken, chicken with broccoli; it’s a litany of Golden Panda Dragon favorites.
It might seem odd that kung pao chicken escaped the magic marker. And at first glance, Mala’s version looks just like the popular Chinese-American restaurant dish of white-meat chicken chunks dipped in cornstarch and flash-fried with peanuts, then coated with hoisin, vinegar, etc. But after the first few bites light up your face, you realize that Mala’s version isn’t your typical kung pao chicken.
In fact, kung pao chicken is one of the most radically spicy dishes on Mala’s menu. If you study the mélange of boneless dark meat chunks, peanuts, and red chiles in your bowl, you’ll notice some little star-shaped fragments that look like cloves. These are the Sichuan peppercorns, and when you bite into one, you might taste citrus, mint, licorice, or all of the above. In a minute or so, the tip of your tongue will begin to simultaneously tingle and go numb. The more you eat, the stronger the buzz.
“Crispy mala beef,” a dish in which the meat comes fried and shredded, also comes with whole peppercorns. There aren’t very many of these on Mala’s menu, but if you’ve never bitten into a Sichuan peppercorn before (and you consider yourself a culinary thrill-seeker), then you might try one.
The dishes served with mala sauce give you the same sensation in a lower dose. “Cumin beef” is one of my favorites. Beef slices are stir-fried with chiles, garlic, cumin, and mala oil—it tastes like Sichuan/Tex-Mex chile con carne. “Mala pot roasted prawns” has three warning peppers on the menu, and it’s delightfully spicy, but only if you eat the shells.
Sichuan peppercorns and mala sauce aren’t on every dish here. “Wasabi cuttlefish,” cold, cooked cuttlefish tossed in sesame wasabi oil, is so intense, you may find it necessary to close your eyes and slap your forehead until your sinuses recover. My wife can’t get enough of this stuff.
“Where have you seen wasabi cuttlefish before?” I asked Cori Xiong. “Is it found in Sichuan province?”
“I don’t know where our chef got the idea,” she replied.
On a visit to Mala Sichuan with food writer John T. Edge, I listened in while Edge interviewed Cori Xiong. To explain the restaurant’s hybridized dishes, she brought a food magazine to the table and showed us photos of some amazing-looking presentations from Sichuan restaurants in other cities and countries. The magazine was in Chinese, so the details were fuzzy.
But it appears that chefs in cutting-edge Sichuan restaurants are borrowing techniques and ingredients from Japanese sushi, charcuterie, and salumi, as well as other world cuisines—just like American chefs. It’s also clear that Mala Sichuan Bistro does not consider itself bound by the constraints of strict authenticity.
There is no reason to be intimidated by the spice at Mala Sichuan. Many excellent dishes on Mala Sichuan’s menu are also quite approachable. “Green onion oil shrimp” is what it sounds like—a plate of shrimp sautéed with flavorful green oil; “green onion oil Arctic clams” is a similarly flavored appetizer. Battered and fried “crispy cuttlefish” with onions, serrano peppers, and basil might remind you of your favorite fried calamari bar snack, and “sautéed water spinach” is one of the tastiest plates of greens in town—it comes with your choice of garlic or peppers. (I get both.)
“Eggplant in spicy garlic sauce” might be the easiest item on the menu to fall in love with. It comes with one warning pepper, but the mala sauce here is balanced with sweet flavors and garlic, and the eggplant is velvety smooth.
With only one warning-pepper symbol, “dan dan noodles” is the mildest appetizer made with mala oil. The thick, knife-cut noodles are tossed with sesame paste and ground pork. I prefer the garlicky “house special cold noodles” (two warning peppers), which come with shredded cucumber, green onion, and garlic. I have never quite worked up the courage to try “sour and spicy intestine noodles,” not because of the three pepper warning, but because my appetite for intestines is limited.
I did indulge in some pork intestines as well as congealed pork blood on a visit to Mala Sichuan Bistro with my colleague John Nova Lomax and our wives. Lomax took one look at the menu, spotted the house special known as “top notch pot of the outlaws,” and suggested we order it. It was one of those “what would Waylon and Willie do?” moments.
The hot pot was set up on our table with a warmer underneath. When we lifted the lid, all we could see was a thick layer of red oil. Besides intestines and congealed blood, the soup also contained flounder, shrimp, squid, ham, and sweet potato vermicelli. Lomax and I dutifully ate a couple of small bowls—our wives wouldn’t touch the stuff. It wasn’t the worst thing I ever tasted.
The leftover soup filled three big Styrofoam containers. I took them home and ate the outlaw hotpot for lunch and midnight snacks over the course of the following week. It paired especially well with Miller High Life. A Mexican friend who joined me for lunch one day called it Chinese menudo.
Mala Sichuan Bistro isn’t what most diners expect from a Chinese restaurant, but at the moment, it’s my favorite restaurant in Chinatown. And that’s saying a lot.