mala at m-k-t
Acclaimed Chinese restaurant’s new Heights location opens with stunning design details and 'fantastic' menu
“There’s a Chinese saying that it takes 10 years to wield a great sword,” Xiong tells CultureMap. “This restaurant is the sword that I took 10 years to wield.”
More than the day-to-day of restaurant operations — she and her husband and business partner Heng Chen have that part down — the “great sword” refers to the restaurant’s design. Mala Sichuan has come a long way from its original Chinatown location, a second generation space that the couple furnished as economically as possible.
An ornamental roof hangs overhead.
“I have more resources to build more beautiful restaurants that’s more close to what I had in mind,” she says. “It has the design and architectural features we have now.”
Working with designer Gin Braverman of Gin Design Group, Xiong realized her vision of a restaurant that incorporates traditional Chinese structures as well as nods to the Sichuan province and her hometown of Chengdu. They include a bamboo installation modeled after an abacus, known as the first calculator, and lighting fixtures inspired by kongming lanterns, which are used during festivals to send wishes to the sky, Xiong explains.
“Working with Cori was intensely gratifying,” Braverman says. “Her strict attention to detail in keeping all of the elements truly Sichuan was so educational. She had a very clear vision to create this modern and dramatic interpretation of Sichuan culture, and we were excited to help bring her vision to life.”
Xiong cites a floating pagoda roof as one element she’s particularly proud of. Created by a Chinese craftsman, the structure came to America by boat. The two pieces just fit through the restaurant’s doors.
“It’s all made by what is called a mortice and tenon. Its ancient carpentry without using nails or glue. It’s like a 3D puzzle with wood,” Xiong says. “When they’re not installed, you’d have seen they were like puzzle pieces.”
Expect to see a couple of eye-catching elements on Instagram: specifically, a wall of waving money cats — matched with the phrase “throw your hands up if the Sichuan got your tongue” — and face-changing “Bian Lian” masks from the Sichuan opera.
Houston's Gin Design Group crafted the ornate interior.
As for the food, Xiong notes that Mala has mostly stabilized its menu over the years, which is good news for anyone who likes staples like red oil dumplings, spicy and crispy chicken, and cumin lamb. The new location revives a dish called “Little fantastic chicken,” a bone-in, skin-on chicken leg quarter that’s stir-fried and served with jalapeños and fermented black bean sauce.
Other new dishes include “Christmas tree bass,” that derives its name from its plating style and adornment with red and green peppers. She also recommends the mayo prawns that are served with a chili dip that sets it apart from the version served at other Sichuan restaurants.
For now, the new Mala will serve a similar beer and wine selection to the Montrose location. Veteran bartender Chris Frankel is developing Mala’s first ever cocktail menu. It will be centered around light, refreshing drinks that both incorporate Chinese and East Asian ingredients and pair well with spicy Sichuan food.
When it opened in 2011, Mala Sichuan was among the first restaurants in Houston to serve traditional Sichuan dishes. Xiong notes that the city’s diners have come a long way in 11 years.
“We still have a lot of people who have never experienced Sichuan before, but I feel like people are more opened minded and are less surprised, ‘wow, this is something new,’” she says.
“I think people are used to experiencing new things. I think that’s a great change.”