Red oil dumplings. Yup.

Image: Heng Chen

What happens when a dining editor doesn't need to eat anything for work?

For this person, at least, it becomes the worst battle of indecisiveness. I have a first instinct, and I pour over a menu, and then I walk it back and decide I might want something else. I look over a second menu, and then I'm wondering if I have enough time to go get it. I bargain with myself. I look at a third and fourth menu. My brain spirals out of control. By the time I've made my decision, I have to race to get whatever food I've ordered. It's like when I ask my 2-year-old what snack she wants at 4:30 p.m. We could stand there for an hour, and by the time it's over, dinner is minutes away.

So, recently, I thought I wanted goat curry. But that turned into possibly Tex-Mex or a burger or maybe just a good salad or ... no, mapo tofu. I wanted mapo tofu. I nearly went back to the curry. No, mapo tofu.

I called up Mala Sichuan. They make good mapo tofu. Done.

An hour later, I was glad I made the decision. Four hours later, when I finished the dish after storing leftovers in the fridge, I was glad I made the decision. Mala's mapo tofu pops and then hangs with you forever. Naturally, that's the "mala" talking—the sensation found in Sichuan foods in which the tongue is numbed by peppercorns, just as the capsaicin from the peppers hits. By now we know this, but Mala Sichuan's mapo tofu with its neon red oil and chili seeds is always a revelation.

Over the past three years, I've carved a special place in my heart for Sichuan cuisine. I still remember each time I've sat awestruck inside Hu's Cooking while enjoying the shabu-shabu lamb with spearmint. I've tempted my tongue with Spicy Girl and Pepper Twins. Wula Buhuan kicked my butt just a little. But I can't ignore Mala Sichuan for too long. Cori Xiong and Heng Chen's restaurant was one of the first spots in Houston to teach people about those mala cravings, and it remains vital for a reason.

There's the way the red oil and soy paste coats those supple pork dumplings. There's the way the spice of the dan dan noodle just creeps up on you. I could snack on that jagged-edged, crispy chicken for days. The same can be said for the salt-and-pepper prawns, battered and fried like Gulf Coast shrimp, like you're sitting by the bay and the crawfish boil is about to start. While we're at it, I'll throw a few dried chilies in my mouth. Perfect.

Crispy and spicy chicken ain't complete unless you eat a bunch of those dried chilies.

Image: Heng Chen

The mala sensation is in just about everything. You may need some tilapia in a pot, but I'll head for the skirt steak rubbed with a generous bit of cumin and served with all kinds of sharp peppers and onions Is it a mala fajita? Should I order tortillas (Mala Sichuan doesn't have tortillas)? You be the judge.

That's just it. I can have any cuisine in Houston—Pakistani, Senegalese, Korean, Mexican ... the list goes on. Somehow, Sichuan is both distinct and can also connect to all of these other traditions that I enjoy. The numbing sensation on my tongue isn't just an identifier of a style, but it's the great uniter for a cuisine, and a restaurant, that somehow gets me closer to other cuisines. 

Mapo tofu taken on its own is just that—tofu in that thin oil that's bound to numb. I taste minced meat and fermented beans along with the softness of the perfectly cooked tofu. The flavors linger forever. 

But it's heat and umami, and it's so comforting I need to return to it multiple times in one night. It's the same sensation I get from that goat curry, or from ramen, an enchilada plate, jollof rice, and, yeah, a crawfish boil. I love that we can have all of that within an hour right here in Houston. I just wish I could figure out which I wanted a little quicker.

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