Mala in the Heights
Acclaimed Chinese bistro picks hot Heights development for stylish new location
Founded in 2011 by husband-and-wife duo Heng Chen and Cori Xiong, Mala Sichuan has earned wide acclaim for its spicy Sichuan cuisine. Signature dishes like Dan Dan noodles, red oil dumplings, and water boiled fish have become staples for diners who crave fresh flavors, and the restaurant's success has sparked a wave of Sichuan restaurants across the Houston area. Among its various awards, the restaurant earned a James Beard Award finalist nomination in 2017.
Chen and Xiong are stepping up their approach for the new Heights location. First, they’re working with local design firm Gin Design Group (Axelrad, Eunice) on the restaurant’s interior. Second, they’ve recruited veteran Houston bartender Chris Frankel to create a cocktail menu that will be unique to the Heights location.
“There’s a saying in Chinese, that it take 10 years to weld a great sword,” Xiong said in response to CultureMap’s request for comment. “We’ve used our accumulated experience and resources to finally deliver this top-notch Sichuan restaurant — this location is that sword!”
Located next to the recently-opened patio bars Casa Nomad and Highline Park, Mala Sichuan will occupy a space that looks out onto the Heights hike-and-bike trail. Designer Gin Braverman’s plans for the buildout include incorporating elements that reference Xiong’s countryside homeland near the city of Chengdu such as custom linen lanterns, Chinese character shadow art, and a pagoda-style wooden roof that’s being made by Sichuan artisans. Stadium-style seating on the patio will allow diners to observe the action on the nearby trail.
“I wanted to work with a top-notch designer to really bring out my vision,” Xiong said. “Gin’s time living in Taiwan also appealed to me because she has seen Chinese culture and architecture in person, not just from images and film. So many artists are involved in bringing our vision to life, it’s definitely going to give guests a multi-dimensional visual and cultural experience.”
“When Cori and Heng posed the challenge of creating an updated look to their iconic establishment for an MKT location, we jumped at the opportunity,” Braverman added. “From the delicate architectural and lighting details to the multitude of artisan collaborations, this space reflects the beloved memories of the owner’s home province: Sichuan, China.”
While the restaurant’s menu will feature the dishes diners have come to expect from Mala, Frankel’s cocktail offerings will be a first. The veteran bartender, whose resume includes Anvil, Bad News Bar, and his short-lived Midtown cult favorite Spare Key, tells CultureMap that his cocktails will be centered around light, refreshing drinks that incorporate Chinese and East Asian ingredients and pair well with spicy Sichuan food. He’ll also take some inspiration from bars he’s visited in Singapore and Korea
“I’m excited about the bar program because it’s the city’s best bar specialist designing our specialty drinks,” Xiong added. “I’m excited to see how it plays out with our food.”
Mala Sichuan joins an eclectic group of restaurants at M-K-T. Already home to establishments such as Da Gama Canteen, Homestead Kitchen & Bar, and salad juggernaut Sweetgreen, the development recently welcomed local ice cream shop Honeychild’s Sweet Creams to its roster. In the future, concepts such as sandwich shop Mendocino Farms and Blue Sushi Sake Grill will open on the property, which is located off N. Shepherd Drive just north of I-10.