Mala Sichuan Bistro - Chinatown
I have been touring the small number of Sichuan restaurants in Chinatown, sampling a dish or two at each, and happened upon this brand new one, tucked in a corner where Brothers was, a Taiwanese restaurant I think, back behind Don Café; the grand opening banner still hangs over the door and it isn’t listed on any review sites yet, although I’ve submitted it to b4. Turns out it’s only been open a little over a week.
It’s a nice room, not your typical Chinatown hole in the wall - a little larger, more nicely appointed, about on a par with Banana Leaf Malaysian though less casual and less cramped. At least half the tables are set up for hot pot. There is a large lighted aquarium in the back with very large fish - I meant to get a picture and ask if they ever find their way to the kitchen or if they’re just for show but I forgot. There’s a picture of the room on Yelp under the listing for Brothers. The menu is as weighty as any of the other Sichuan restaurants I’ve been to; the staff is very friendly and fluent in English. There wasn’t a printed menu to go and there’s no website so I can’t remember many of the dishes.
As I’ve done at the three other Sichuan restaurants before this I went with the Dan Dan Noodles for comparison sake; this must be like Sichuan comfort food - noodles in a puddle of mala, the Sichuan Peppercorn/red chili pepper/oil/ginger/etc.concoction that is used in many dishes, garnished variously, usually with minced pork and scallions at least.
The Dan Dan was described as having the usual garnishes plus Chinese preserved vegetables and spinach. I think the preserved vegetable is a pickled Chinese cabbage, minced. Dan Dan usually looks rather bland and uninteresting as presented, kind of pasty, but becomes much more interesting when some of the mala is stirred up. These were the thinnest noodles I’ve encountered, more like spaghettini; it was very, very aromatic and I did find a couple of small spinach leaves in the mix. This was also the largest portion I’ve been served; it is described on the menu as spicy and it was but just a little, neither the spiciest nor blandest version I’ve had so far, with some heat and just a little numbing effect. I think next time I’ll ask for the medium spice level and see where that gets me.
I also went with the sauteed green/long beans with garlic and also some of the preserved vegetables, as I recall, off the lunch menu. This was very garlicky and a little sweet - a nice counterpoint to the heat of the noodles.
All in all a good meal and priced in line with all the other Sichuan places I’ve been to. The Dan Dan was $3.95 and was practically enough for a meal in itself; the green beans were $4.95 as are many of the lunch specials.
One of the interesting dishes I was able to remember from the menu, under the House Specialties, was Couples Lungs. I had to look that one up! It’s an authentic Sichuan dish of offal but usually not including any lung. I don’t know that I’ve seen that on any other menu.
I have just one more Sichuan place in Chinatown to try then try to decide which one to look into further; I suspect I’m going to be hitting all of them again.
9889 Bellaire Blvd, Houston, TX 77036
Since this place came in no. 1 in a recent top 10 of China Town list, we headed over for lunch yesterday. We had the dumplings (soup it actually turned out to be, for 2-3 ppl @ $3.25!), crispy cuttlefish with basil and jalapenos, crispy duck and baby bok choy with garlic. It was all great except for the duck, which was not crispy and which we brought most of home to try and crisp up in the toaster oven. I later searched and found Alison Cook's review upon Mala's opening last year at about this time in which she found fault with few things, but one of them was the crispy duck and I'm surprised they haven't fixed that in the past year (or at least renamed it). I especially liked the cuttlefish and noted that they do the dish with chicken as well. The people were super friendly and fluent in English. The check out person asked if it was our first time and we told her it was so she told us the peak hours to avoid, although we waited only about 10 minutes for our table in the very small restaurant during a busy Saturday lunch service. We really enjoyed it and will return some time, I'm sure. Those green beans look great. I have a real thang for baby bok choy and it was well prepared, although I wish they could make it without the corn starch. When I make it at home, it is better without the ubiquitous thickener you find in restaurants, just a little butter and chicken stock will do. Have you returned?
Yes, several times, but not in about 8 months or so.
Back then I ranked MSB right in the middle of the pack of Sichuan places I tried; I thought there were a couple that were better based on just one visit to each, and I revisited them before going back here.
Of course, the Foodie Powers That Decide These Things in Houston have declared MSB to be the fairest of the fair. One of those Powers saw this post and tweeted about it and the rush was on.
I rated it a little lower based on a little reverse foodie snobbery - it was such a nice place instead of a hole in the wall and the staff spoke such good English, I thought it was probably aimed at a non-ethnic clientele and the recipes were going to be Americanized to some extent.