Sometimes, we miss good food by not ordering correctly. I think that was the case on our first visit… or was it?
We met a good friend for a quiet lunch at the original Mala Sichuan Bistro on Bellaire Boulevard in Chinatown. There’s a new, quite popular one in the Montrose area, too. Thank Goodness that we were totally happy with the company. None of us had ever eaten there before. Did you ever really want to like the food somewhere, yet found something slightly lacking in each dish? I am a fan of Sichuan cuisine, so this was not my first rodeo. Of course, there is something new to learn in ANY cuisine… and so, I hoped, was the case here.
We were greeted by courteous staff members, seated quickly, and looked forward to a wonderful lunch. We all like spicy flavors, hence our choice of Sichuan food in the first place. Even though we found that there was a spicy tang to the dishes, it was hardly “hot”.
First choice were Mala Pot Roasted Prawns. This is an example of wonderful flavor, yet it was almost impossible to eat. I DID eat eat every bite though. The problem? The prawns were swimming in a delicious “mala” sauce including asparagus, bamboo shoots, green onions, but they weren’t peeled. There is discussion about the health benefits of eating the shells, but I don’t care for the texture. Each succulent, perfectly-cooked prawn was served in its shell and required fishing for it with fingers, then peeling it to enjoy it. Eating all of the prawns required sticking the fingers into the sauce… then peeling… and an entire napkin per prawn. I went through over a dozen napkins before i realized that the only way to do this was to peel and eat ALL of the prawns at once… then eat the crispy veggies. Otherwise, it was eat a prawn and clean the hands… eat a prawn and clean the hands!
Next was Cumin Beef. Loaded with beef and a copious amount of white onions, this dish was a meat lover’s dream, EXCEPT that there was a rich sauce that had a large topside pool of clear beef fat (probably not the mala – “numbingly hot or sexy” – sauce – made from oil, spices and peppercorns) that was a bit off-putting. Sally ate a fourth of it and asked to take the remaining dish home in a doggie bag to keep from hurting the server’s feelings. It was offered to a meat-loving family member on the way home who loved it! It was garlicky and flavorful, but far too greasy for her tastes.
The Mapo Tofu seemed a perfect choice for our friend who is a vegetarian. While the sauce was relatively spicy and tasty, our friend ate very little and declined a to-go box. Not being a fan of tofu, I decided to let his unfinished dish speak for itself.
So, to give fair advice and a second try, we went again the next day to try three more dishes… FAR more successfully.
Kung Pao Chicken is usually a reliable test for Chinese food and this passed the test very well. Also translated as Gong Pao, or Kung Po, it is a spicy stir-fry dish with chicken, peanuts, vegetables and red chili peppers. It was delicious, spicy and the fresh vegetables were crisp.
This dish is almost literally just peppers and tea-smoked duck. Watch out for the bones! The duck is chopped into small pieces and quickly sauteed in a wok, bones-in much like Carribean Goat Curry in a Jamaican restaurant. I loved it, as the pieces of duck were almost like small lamb chops. The MANY dried Sichuan red peppers, red oil, long-sliced serrano and peppercorns added a pleasant tingling kick-scientifically, known as paresthesia. So far, nothing was oppressively hot (unless you ate the chilis only).
Fresh Sauteed Spinach was perfect with plenty of garlic. A refreshing supplement to almost everything on the menu. While the leaves were sauteed barely wilted… the stems were a bit of a struggle.
Mala Sichuan Bistro is obviously loved by many Asians as they seemed prevalent in the restaurant – it was after all, Chinatown. It was a pleasant trip to enjoy another culture, cuisine and certainly worth experimenting with the many curiously named dishes offered. Next time, a Sichuan classic favorite made with mung bean cellophane noodles – Ants on the Tree!