My friend Sammy murmured something across the table today at lunch about Mala Sichuan's new Montrose location being a testament to the power of restaurant reviews, and we both stopped to consider that idea for a moment. Were it not for rave reviews—in the Houston Chronicle, the Press, Houstonia and countless other publications—of the little restaurant in the corner of a rundown strip mall in Chinatown, would Mala Sichuan be the dominant force it is today? Would owner Cori Xiong have expanded into Montrose, or expanded at all if not for the tidal wave of foodies that began crashing down on her restaurant a couple of years ago, there to try her much-lauded crispy cuttlefish or green onion oil Arctic clams?
1201 Westheimer Rd.
Currently open for lunch and dinner; BYOB
We pondered this idea for only the barest of seconds; after all, the food had started to arrive. And our 15 minute wait time for a table at lunch in the newly opened spot had stretched into 30 minutes, meaning that by the time our plates arrived, we were starving. We ordered a few old favorites from the original Mala menu, starting with my favorite: Couples Lung Slices, the thin slices of beef tripe (note: not lung) draped like charcuterie across a plate swimming with chile oil. That chile oil—a glossy, candy apple red—features prominently in many of Mala's signature dishes, which employ Sichuan peppercorns and other fiery Chinese chiles to great effect. It was in our bowl of slippery glass noodles with pork intestine that arrived next, and it's what I used a dipping sauce of sorts for the wonderful pile of spicy fried chicken that we tried from the new sections of Mala's revamped Montrose menu.
The spicy chicken is listed on the menu under a category called "Aromatic and Spicy Dishes." This is of no help to the average consumer, so thankfully the Mala staff are prepared to explain the more esoteric dishes to a crowd that may not be as familiar with headings such as these, or names such as Top Notch Pot of the Outlaws. Aromatic and spicy at Mala simply means crispy, fried and spicy—and in addition to the chicken, you'll find such adventurous options as Aromatic and Spicy Duck Tongue and Dry Pot Bullfrog (dry pot here meaning, simply, very spicy).
It wasn't long ago that a connoisseur of duck tongues (Yes, we exist. Our motto is "Mind the bone.") was hard-pressed to find them in Chinatown, let alone Houston proper. And now here we are. Duck tongues and whole bullfrog and mung bean jelly and delicious, chile oil-soaked pig intestines served up right next door to some of the city's most high-profile restaurants: El Real Tex-Mex, Underbelly, Uchi. In a way, it only makes sense that Mala, which has transformed the way that many Houston diners understand Chinese food, should now keep company with these fellow heavy-hitters, because it too is a force to be reckoned with.
It's the same feeling I can imagine I'll have when I walk through the front doors of Pho Binh when it finally opens its new location on White Oak Drive, just down the street from Coltivare and every bit as vital to Houston's food scene as chef Ryan Pera's farm-to-table triumph. Like Mala, it sprung from humble roots—in the case of Pho Binh, a double-wide trailer in South Houston that opened in 1983—and has expanded into the city as it's grown. Like Mala, Pho Binh has given Houstonians a greater appreciation for the cuisine of its home country. And most importantly, like Mala, has succeeded on its own merits by making food that's contextually honest and, above all, delicious. Could the reviews have helped along the way? Sure. But Mala could have existed—and thrived—without reviews, whereas reviews can't exist without restaurants that inspire them.
Mala is obviously an inspiration in more ways than one, but today at lunch the biggest inspiration of all was how little Mala has changed in ways other than a grand two-story dining room with a colorful mural and mood lighting and some new dishes to go with its glossy new space. We left with the same full bellies, shirts spattered with candy paint-colored chile oil and to-go boxes filled with leftovers for the same $20 we would have spent in Chinatown. We left ever in love with Houston, and with the rich flood of food that rushes over the city every day, depositing precious gems like Mala Sichuan as it flows.