BY JAMIE ALVEAR
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Mala Sichuan has long been a staple in Bellaire for authentic Sichuan dishes. Just over a year ago, owners Cori Xiong and Heng Chen decided to open a second location in the Montrose district. Sichuan cuisine is characterized by bold flavors that include generous amounts of chili peppers and the unique addition of Sichuan peppercorns. Red and green peppercorns are used in a few of Mala’s entrees and can produce a numbing “ma” effect on the lips and tongue. These dishes are best suited for adventurous eaters and those accustomed to the numbing sensation. Mala also offers classic Sichuan delights that come in a variety of heat levels.
The menu at Mala is quite extensive and luckily I brought along a few dining companions to help me out. I took some time to peruse the drink menu, which consisted of an ample selection of wine and craft beers. I chose a Brooklyn Brewery “Sorachi Ace” Saison, hoping the herbaceous beer with notes of lemongrass would be a nice match with the flavorful food.
Starters and appetizers come in small shareable plates so it’s best to order 2- 3 dishes. I decided on the cucumber salad, red oil dumplings, and Dan Dan noodles. The cucumbers were tossed in a vinaigrette consisting of garlic, red chili sauce, and chili oil. Although the salad looked daunting with visible chili seeds and flakes, it was absolutely delicious and something I could eat every day. The pork filled dumplings were coated in red chili oil and topped with green onions. The dumplings were flatter and had less filling than I am use to, but they were quite savory. The noodles are served with a spicy mala sauce and topped with ground pork. After tossing the noodles in the mala sauce and taking a few bites, I began to notice a slight tingle in my lips.
My entrée choices included Water Boiled Beef, Salt and Pepper Prawns, and Skin Crackling Duck. The beef was beautifully presented in a red clay pot. After being braised with garlic, ginger, and fermented bean paste, the beef is then poured over Napa cabbage and topped with boiling oil. The end result is a rich and flavorful dish that has just the right amount of heat. The duck is sliced into bite sized pieces and the skin, as promised, is truly crispy and finger licking good. The prawns are deep fried with the shells on and then tossed with peppers and onions. Don’t be afraid to eat the shells, they are extremely tasty and full of hidden health benefits.
It may appear at this point that you cannot eat another bite, but trust me you will want a slice of Mille Crepe cake. Made in house and available in several flavors, this cake is the perfect refreshing bite to cool your palate from any residual spice. It also gives you time to sit back, enjoy a pot of tea, and plan your next visit to Mala Sichuan.
PHOTOGRAPHY: JAMIE ALVEAR