Ask a Houstonian where out-of-town guests should eat and a handful of restaurants will repeatedly be included in their recommendations: The Original Ninfa’s on Navigation, Hugo’s, Himalaya, Crawfish & Noodles and Mala Sichuan Bistro — most likely the original in Chinatown. That’s the location that was named a James Beard Award finalist.
However, the newest location in the Heights — a beautifully designed space in the M-K-T development at 600 North Shepherd — may now be my personal go-to (though I’d still recommend out-of-town visitors go to Chinatown).
This is the fifth location for Cori Xiong and Heng Chen, the wife-and-husband team behind Mala Sichuan. It joins the couple’s others in Chinatown, Montrose, Katy and Sugar Land, which have become well known for serving outstanding Sichuan food and for exploring the nuances of the region’s cuisine with dishes such as tea-smoked duck and dan dan noodles, which utilizes the spicy chiles and tongue-tingling Sichuan peppercorns often associated with the province’s foodways.
Not only is the new location closer to my house (freeing up trips to Chinatown for other exciting eateries), it’s beautifully designed by Gin Braverman and her team at gin design group. Inspired by Xiong’s childhood in Chengdu (the capital of China’s Sichuan province) and the surrounding countryside, the breathtaking interior features a full-size pagoda roof handmade in Sichuan by local artisans. The wood structure, which was shipped in two halves, hovers over a central seating area lined with stone bricks and light-tan banquettes, evoking a traditional Sichuan building.
The bar is clad in traditional clay roof tiles, transforming the rustic material into a sleek, modern feature where guests can enjoy cocktails — a first for Mala Sichuan. The bar is separated from the entrance by an intricate partition made from abacuses, the original calculators, which Xiong learned to use while attending school in Chengdu.
The aesthetic vision that Braverman made a reality is a culmination of a journey Xiong began when she immigrated to the United States in 1997. Her father, a food engineer, arrived first and eventually opened Little Sichuan Cuisine, a restaurant in Plano. Xiong worked there during summer breaks from the University of Texas, where she studied economics and met Chen. After graduating from college, the couple began looking for restaurant spaces that fit their limited budget. They found one in Houston’s Chinatown, an area they thought would be receptive to Sichuan cuisine while not being saturated with Sichuan options. At that time, many of the restaurants in Chinatown were Cantonese.
They opened the first Mala Sichuan in 2011. It quickly garnered critical acclaim. The Houston Chronicle’s longtime restaurant critic, Alison Cook, named it #26 on her inaugural top 100 Restaurant List, which was published in 2012. Five restaurants later, Xiong, Chen and Braverman have created a space that reflects that evolution while remaining rooted in Sichuan culture — a space that equals the beauty of the food.
The food, which we were invited to try, includes Mala Sichuan classics such as pillowy, warming red oil dumplings stuffed with pork and served in chili oil and a nutty, sweet-and-spicy soy paste — the ultimate comfort food. Diners will also find other classics like spicy water boiled fish; braised eggplants in spicy garlic sauce, which is one of one of the best eggplant dishes in the city; and spicy and crispy chicken, bite-sized chicken flash fried with dry red chilies, whole Sichuan peppercorns and served with mala seasoning and fermented broad bean paste.
The Heights’ restaurant is also offering several new dishes developed for this location. These include Mayo Prawns: prawns fried until crispy yet still light and served with sweet mayo sauce and fiery mala chili powder. Pro tip: dunk the prawn in the mayo sauce and then dip it in the chili powder until it’s lightly coated. The resulting bite is a galvanizing blend of sweet, spice and crunch.
Other new dishes include: Squirrel tail fish (scored, deep fried basa fish — squirrel tail refers to how the fish is cut, not a type of fish — coated in a tomato-based sweet-and-sour sauce and topped with pine nuts); Little Fantastic Chicken (a chopped, bone-in, skin-on chicken quarter sautéed with jalapeño and served with fermented broad bean paste); three cup chicken (chicken and basil cooked down with sesame oil, soy sauce and sugar); Chicken Stock Potstickers (the pork, green onion and sesame oil filling is cooked in chicken stock instead of water so it’s juicer and has a richer mouth feel); Supreme Bamboo (sautéed young bamboo shoots); and Dry Pot Mixed Vegetables (potato, cauliflower, lotus root, king oyster mushroom, wood ear mushroom, string bean and bean curd sheet seasoned with ginger, garlic, dry red chilis, Sichuan peppercorns, hotpot sauce and fermented black bean). According to Xiong, some of these dishes may eventually be available at other locations.
As at other locations, you can finish your meal with an airy mille crêpe cake, featuring 20 layers of thin crêpes, each sandwiching a layer of pastry cream. The Heights location offers four flavors: tiramisu, Nutella, vanilla caramel and matcha. The last, which we sampled, is a pleasing, not-too-sweet expression of the nutty and vegetal notes that make sipping green tea a pleasant experience. Unique to this location is Mala Ice Cream with Peanut Brittle, a collaboration with its M-K-T neighbor Honeychild Sweet Creams, which is also selling this singular blend of spice, crunch and creamy sweetness.
The Heights location is offering another first for Mala Sichuan: cocktails. Veteran bartender Chris Frankel is developing a dozen cocktails. Each is inspired by a different animal of the Chinese zodiac and incorporates flavors that compliment Mala Sichuan’s dishes. Six are currently available with the next six scheduled to roll out in mid to late October. The drinks have playful names such as Friendly Tiger, Quiet Rooster, Crystal Dragon, Dancing Goat, Laughing Monkey and Jade Rabbit, and ingredient combos that are as clever as the monikers. The Friendly Tiger is a blend of oolong-infused bourbon, orange marmalade and orange bitters, while the Dancing Goat combines jasmine-infused gin, basil, cucumber, lime and cucumber tonic. The bar also offers a focused selection of beer and wine.
Thoughtful design elements, from the floating pagoda roof to a mural of haunting ginkgo leaves, combined with outstanding dishes — both classic and new — and intriguing cocktails make Mala Sichuan’s Heights restaurant a worthy destination, even if you regularly frequent the other locations.
Hours at the Heights location are currently Wednesday through Monday 11 a.m. to 10 p.m., closed Tuesdays.
Source: Houston Food