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Roasted Eggplant Roasted Eggplant KC Taffinger via Flicker

Camraderie and Spice at Mala Sichuan Bistro

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House Sculpted Special Kidneys. Couples Lung Slices. Basil Intestines.

So maybe Mala Sichuan Bistro is not where you take someone whose idea of “adventurous eating” is putting house-made spicy ketchup rather than Heinz on their fries. But if you’re reading this article, I’m guessing that “someone” isn’t your close friend anyway? #foodiessticktogether

And, while we’re on the subject, don’t go to Mala Sichuan Bistro with just a friend but rather eight friends, minimum. Family-style is the best way to fully appreciate their distinctive dishes and in choosing just one for you yourself you’ll be satisfied but left wondering, “Was there something better?” Maybe, though judging the relative excellence of Mala’s appetizers and entrees is prohibitively difficult because so much is so very good.

Sichuan (or szechuan) cuisine, which finds its roots in southwestern China, is typically spicy and robust in flavor and utilizes diverse cooking techniques. Mala attends to those traditions by offering rice, soups, proteins, and vegetables of varying tastes and layered textures. Unlike many (American) Chinese restaurants, everything at Mala most definitely does not taste the same.

A meal alone could be made on the creatively named appetizers, such as the “Red Oil Rabbit,” tender chunks of bunny bathing in a black bean and red chili sauce, or the cold jellyfish with cucumbers and carrots in sesame oil.

The “couples lung slices,” btw, is far less scary in person than on the menu. You’ll be served a trio of spicy beef tenderloin, beef shank, beef tripe covered in crumbled peanuts and while consuming this rich, earthy starter you will ponder whether why you’ve never thought of putting peanut butter on your steak.

Couples Lung Slices, Photo by KC Taffinger via Flicker

If you do happen to find yourself at Mala with a picky eater in your party, focus more on the entrée section of the menu, which features tamer but satisfying options like Mongolian beef and Lemon chicken. For you, though, intrepid diner, shy away from the Pei-Wei style mains and order a few of Mala’s signature Sichuan dishes. Repeat diners will tell you the “best” of these is the “Water-Boiled Fish,” a deceptively plain name for a sophisticated combination of tilapia in spicy sauce with napa cabbage, sweet potato vermicelli, steamed bean sprouts, and topped off with boiling chili oil.  Other more bovine-inclined regulars might argue they prefer the cumin beef, a fiery, diversely textured mixture of juicy beef strips, crisp cilantro, red chilis, and sautéed onions.

Mala Pot Roasted Tilapia, Photo by KC Taffinger via Flicker

These dishes are popular for a reason, but I recommend giving some love to the less-celebrated-but-still-cool kids at Mala, such as the lighter botanical-briny Winter Melon with Dried Fish and the “Four Joy Lion Head,” plump pork meatballs served with black mushrooms, bok choy, tomatoes, and bamboo shoots in thick brown sauce. The latter is especially terrific on those “chilly” Texas evenings and only improved by dumping a large scoop of white rice directly into the bowl.

Mala’s downfalls are in the realm of service, which can be inconsistent and slow. Perhaps all the more reason to go with a boisterous bunch that is happy to chatter in between courses and whose company, combined with the food, is a welcome distraction from any delayed food and drink orders.

 

Mala Sichuan Bistro
9348 Bellaire Blvd
Houston, Texas 77036

Mala Sichuan Bistro on Urbanspoon

Written by Joanna O'Leary
Joanna O'Leary

Joanna O'Leary

With a bachelor's degree in English from Harvard University and a PhD in Victorian literature from Rice University, Joanna O'Leary enjoys reading and writing almost as much as she likes to eat. She has worked as a food and travel writer for a number of publications including Let's Go, Wine Enthusiast, Black Book, the Onion, and the Houston Press, and is currently writing a book on amateur turn-of-the-century cookbooks and material culture.

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