Photos by Bill Krampitz for TK Images

Cori Xiong is extremely proud of the newest location of Mala Sichuan Bistro. The acclaimed Chinese eatery recently opened its fifth Houston restaurant in the M-K-T Heights mixed-use development.

“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.

Mala Sichuan Bistro MKT Heights interior 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.

Mala Sichuan Bistro MKT Heights interior 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.”

Courtesy of Killer Noodle

LA-based ramen restaurant heats up the Heights with numbing noodles

Super spicy ramen

From Indian curries to fiery salsas and Cajun favorites, Houstonians have consistently showed affection for restaurants that aren't afraid to spice things up. A ramen restaurant opening soon in the Heights is counting on that enthusiasm extending to Japanese noodles.

Killer Noodle has claimed the former Cane Rosso space at 1835 N. Shepherd Dr. for its first Houston location. Scheduled to open October 15, the Los Angeles-based restaurant is known for its tantanmen noodles, a style that comes from China's Sichuan province. Served with or without broth, they're available in seven spices levels (zero to six) and seven levels of numbing, its take on the signature mala tingle of Sichuan cuisine.

"In Japan, there is such a wide spectrum for ramen. There are many different styles, flavors, and quality," director of marketing Yuino Kumamoto tells CultureMap in an email. "At Killer Noodle, all these factors are taken into consideration to provide our guests with a unique style of spicy ramen called 'Dan Dan Men.' The rich peanut flavor, fresh ingredients, irresistible spice quality, or mouth numbing experience (if you so choose) are just a few reasons Killer stands out amongst the rest."

Diners can add toppings such as a poached egg, chashu (rolled pork belly), and vegetables. In addition to its noodles, the restaurant offers appetizers such gyoza, takoyaki, and karaage.

The restaurant grew out of the Tsujita restaurant group that started in Tokyo in 2003. Founder Takehiro Tsujita has grown the company to 18 locations in Japan, along with two more in America and two Killer Noodles in Los Angeles. Jonathan Gold, the late, award-winning food critic for the Los Angeles Times, praised Killer Noodle in a 2018 review.

You try the Tokyo-style noodles with soup, level three (sansho level four), and you like them a lot. The soup is thick with ground nuts, the top is sprinkled with sesame seeds and what taste like chopped cashews, and there is an almost imperceptible funk of dried shrimp.

It is spicy but not too spicy. The downtown-style ramen you swipe from the bowl next to you is good too — a little sweeter, a little more vinegar-forward, with broth a bit thinner . . . Your lips do not vibrate quite so vividly with the particular numbing effect of the pepper.

The restaurant has big plans for Houston. A second location is scheduled to open on Westheimer next year, and the company is looking for a third that would open by 2025.

"Houston is one of the best places on earth to enjoy fine cuisine from all over the world, and at Killer Noodle we want to continue that trend by offering Houstonians a unique, authentic, and innovative style of enjoying a Japanese classic," Kumamoto adds. "Houston is very diverse with foodies who are not afraid to turn up the spice!"

Killer Noodle joins an area that's home to several ramen options. It will be located just down the street from one of Jinya Ramen Bar's eight Houston-area locations. Rakken Ramen, another Los Angeles-based restaurant, is located in the M-K-T mixed-use development, while Las Vegas's Shokku Ramen is open 24-7 on Studewood.

Photo courtesy of Puttery

Upscale, adult-only miniature golf destination rolls into Houston with cool courses and nightlife vibe

fun to a tee

A high-style, celebrity-backed miniature golf course is rolling out in Sawyer Yards. Puttery, described as a “competitive socializing and entertainment golf experience,” will open at noon Friday, September 16, the company announced.

Puttery aims to elevate the traditional miniature golf experience by offering immersive environments across its new, two-story, 23,000-square-foot venue. Aside from the three nine-hole putting courses, this new Sawyer Yards location — open to adults 21 and older only — will also include multiple bars, rotating DJs, and live music.

Nightlife vibe: check. Now, as for the actual mini-golf, players can expect three tech-enabled, themed courses, as described in press materials:

  • Lodge: A super chill nine-hole course. In between shots, players can take in Rocky Mountain sights, get toasty by the wall-length fireplace, and stop for a ski lift selfie.
  • Library: Fans can browse the shelves, spin a globe, say hi to the dimetrodon, and throw the book at their opponents.
  • Conservatory: Traverse a giant redwood forest, dodge prickly cacti, and snap pics of dazzling cherry blossoms. (All with a drink in hand, natch.)

Developed in partnership with golf star Rory McIlroy, Puttery follows the trend of miniature golf destinations hiring serious pros to lead design — something once relegated to actual golf courses. Houston will be the venue's fifth market, joining Dallas; Charlotte, North Carolina; Washington, D.C.; and Miami. More venues currently under development include New York City; Chicago; Philadelphia; Pittsburgh; Minneapolis; and Kansas City, Missouri.

“As a Houston native myself, I couldn’t be more excited for this opening,” said Hana Khouri, CEO of Puttery parent company Drive Shack Inc. “Houston is already internationally renowned for its cutting-edge entertainment and culinary innovations, but I can guarantee that Puttery will offer an experience unlike any other in the city.”

Upscale miniature golf experiences are clearly having a moment. Puttshack, a concept similar to Puttery, is slated to open downtown in the Shops at Houston Center in late 2022. PopStroke, a mini-golf course that has partnered with golf legend Tiger Woods, will also open in Katy later this fall.

Eric Sandler contributed to this article.

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Puttery Houston; Sawyer Yards, 1818 Washington Ave. For reservations and more information, visit the official Houston site.

Puttery swings into Sawyer Yards with cool courses and a nightlife vibe. (Also, how cute is that bear cub?)

Photo courtesy of Puttery
Puttery swings into Sawyer Yards with cool courses and a nightlife vibe. (Also, how cute is that bear cub?)
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Lazybrook/Timbergrove bar rebrands around 2 things it does best: steaks and whiskey

every night is steak night

Kristen Powell is changing things up at the Barking Pig, her bar and restaurant in Lazybrook/Timbergrove. After seven years in business, she’s rebranding to a new concept focused on steak and whiskey.

Beginning in September, the space at 2307 Ella Blvd. will be known as Ribeye & Rye: Texas Bar & Grill. As its name implies, the new restaurant will focus on the hand cut steaks Powell has been serving Houstonians for years in a casual, family-friendly environment.

As she notes, the area around the Barking Pig has changed considerably since she opened in 2015. Once a relatively quiet part of town with a few nearby legacy restaurants, the area has exploded in recent years. Nearby 19th and 20th streets have become a thriving nightlife district, and 18th street has added several restaurants. The time had come to switch things up in a way that would compel diners to take a fresh look.

“I was young when I started this [business],” Powell explains. “Now, I’m almost 40. There really aren’t many places for people my age to have a great meal and converse without feeling pressured to leave at restaurants or feeling like I’m babysitting kids at a bar on 20th Street.”

Enter Ribeye & Rye. The new restaurant will be open for lunch and dinner with a menu that blends steakhouse classics and Southern-inspired dishes. At dinner, the offerings will include starters such as buttermilk biscuits, deviled eggs, and a whole fried onion that’s highly reminiscent of another casual steak restaurant. Entree choices include fried chicken, personal pizzas, and six grilled items that include filet mignon, ribeye, and pork loin. Over time, Powell plans to add business lunch specials and a revamped brunch menu.

At a time when luxury steakhouses might charge $60 or more for an entree, Powell’s use of USDA Choice beef allows her to keep prices at a more economical level. Expect to pay between $25 and $30 for a steak at Ribeye & Rye.

Along with the new menu comes a new design. Ribeye & Rye has a fresh coat of black paint on its exterior. Inside, diners will find a stylish new bar fully stocked with ryes and other whiskeys.

Until the change becomes official, diners can get a preview of the new restaurant by sampling its Houston Restaurant Weeks menu. The three-course, $39 offering includes entrees that will be available at Ribeye & Rye such as chicken fried chicken, almond-crusted cod, and 6-ounce filet with mashed potatoes.

“The Heights [and its nearby neighborhoods] has evolved and grown,” Powell says. “Time to glow up.”

Every night is now steak night at the neighborhood bar formerly known as the Barking Pig.

TheBarkingPigHTX/Instagram [https://www.instagram.com/p/CgAe834pDDH/?igshid=YmMyMTA2M2Y%3D]
Every night is now steak night at the neighborhood bar formerly known as the Barking Pig.
Photo by Mikah Danae

New all-day cafe serves up a taste of Louisiana to The Heights in familiar space

a bonus in the heights

A Louisiana-inspired all-day cafe has opened in the Heights. Lagniappe Kitchen & Bar has entered a soft opening this week ahead of its official grand opening this Friday, August 19.

Located in the former Revival Market space, Lagniappe serves a mixture of Cajun and Creole-inspired fare for breakfast, lunch, and happy hour. Owner Layne Cruz is a Louisiana native who spent five years as Revival Market's general manager before being given the opportunity to transform the space into her own restaurant.

The space has been given a Louisiana makeover complete with bathrooms decorated in the colors of the New Orleans Saints and LSU Tigers. Cruz took inspiration from her living room for the main dining area, which seats 56, including a 14-seat bar. Outdoor seating for up to 37 people is also available.

Turning to the menu, breakfast at Lagniappe could include dishes such as a Sardou omelet with creamed spinach, smoked ham, and gruyere or cheddar bacon biscuits. The "All Day" section features a classic muffaletta sandwich on a semolina roll sourced from New Orleans favorite Gambino's bakery as well as Black & Tan Po'boy of blackened shrimp and fried oysters.

Lunch features Cruz's gumbo that includes a housemade andouille sausage. During happy hour, look for bar bites like crab-stuffed hush puppies, cheese and charcuterie plates, and oysters raw, roasted, or fried.

Lagniappe's beverage offerings start with coffees that use beans from New Orleans-based roasted. In addition, look for low ABV spins on classic New Orleans cocktails, beer, and wine. During happy hour, select cocktails are priced at $7.

"I’ve made my professional home at 550 Heights Blvd. for the past seven years at Revival Market, and I’m thrilled for the opportunity to now revamp this space into my dream restaurant with Lagniappe,” Cruz said in a statement. “Opening my own restaurant has been a personal goal for as long as I can remember, and I can’t wait to introduce Heights regulars to a taste of the Big Easy.”

Lagniappe opens daily at 7 am.

Layne's gumbo.

Photo by Mikah Danae
Layne's gumbo.
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CultureMap Emails are Awesome

Homey new art installation moves into Discovery Green this fall

Welcome Home

Remember the playful, larger-than-life spinning tops that took over Discovery Green in 2015? The team behind that public art installation is back with another unique, interactive exhibit.

Called Mi Casa, Your Casa 2.0, it features 16 glowing, house-like play structures on the Sarofim Lawn that create a space for Houstonians to sit, swing, relax, and come together as a community.

The installation from Mexican designers Esrawe + Cadena is inspired by the mercados of Latin America — lively street markets where human connections are made every day.

The goal is for visitors to make new friends, try new activities, dance to music, and enjoy the city’s diverse cultural and art experiences for the duration of the exhibit, which runs October 8-November 14, 2022.

But that's not all. To help bring Houstonians together, there will be public art programming inspired by the installation and sponsored by Houston Association of Realtors, starting with a big opening night celebration.

On October 8 from 6-10 pm, get ready for:

  • Two evening performances of Lifted by Mimbre, an all-woman acrobatic dance group from the United Kingdom on their first U.S. tour.
  • Houston artist Ange Hillz live-painting the newest President's Mural: Discovery Green from A to Z. Hillz will paint accompanied by DJ Monstaa and pianist DJ Pee Wee from The Too Laid Back Band. The painting will be on view through January 29, 2023.

"During the past two years, many Houstonians have felt isolated in their homes and have missed the opportunity to be part of a community," says Jennifer Wauhob, chair of the Houston Association of Realtors, which is sponsoring the public art programming. "Our 49,000 Realtors know how important community connection is and Mi Casa, Your Casa 2.0 creates a space where strangers can become friends in the comfort of an exhibit that feels like home."

Here's what else you can enjoy throughout the installation's six-week run:

  • Listen to a “Houston Strong” playlist courtesy of ROCO while enjoying the Mi Casa, Your Casa 2.0 art installation.
  • Catch two more performances of Lifted on October 9 at noon and 2:30 pm.
  • Watch the Houston Pride Band’s SaxWorx and Brass Tax quartet perform on October 14 from 7-9 pm.
  • Enjoy traditional Indonesian music from Gamelan of the New Moon performed live on October 21 from 7-9 pm.

And especially for children:

  • On Saturday, October 8, from 1:30-3 pm, kids can create a mini casa using toothpicks and gumdrops with the help of Girlstart STEM.
  • On Saturday, October 15, from 1:30-3 pm, kids can sing and dance along with Encanto characters Isabela, Mirabel, and Dolores.
  • On Saturday, October 29 from 1:30-3 pm, they can enjoy cultural crafts created by exhibitors visiting from different parts of Mexico.

Discovery Green is a 12-acre park that features sprawling lawns, a one-acre lake, an interactive fountain, a playground, public art installations, gardens, and an allée of century-old live oaks. Since opening in April 2008, the park has welcomed more than 20 million visitors.

As Discovery Green prepares to celebrate its 15th birthday party, Houstonians are invited to “discover themselves” at the park with free concerts, entertainment, relaxation, and more. More info at www.discoverygreen.com.

Photo courtesy of Creos

Esrawe + Cadena's Mi Casa, Your Casa 2.0 is on display October 8-November 14, 2022.

Conroe-born country star Parker McCollum headlines RodeoHouston 2023 Opening Day celebrations

parker saddles up for rodeo

A familiar face will headline the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo’s wildly popular Opening Day performance. Conroe native and country star Parker McCollum will take the NRG Stadium stage on Tuesday, February 28, 2023, the rodeo announced.

Individual tickets for McCollum’s Opening Days show start at $25, plus a $4 convenience fee and are on sale at 10 am on Thursday, October 6 via rodeohouston.com. As always, an Online Waiting Room will open at 9:30 am; customers who join the Waiting Room from 9:30 to 9:59 am will be randomly selected to purchase tickets at 10 am. (A place in the Waiting Room does not guarantee tickets.) Customers can purchase a maximum of eight tickets.

McCollum, who boasts more than 3.3 million followers on Spotify with favorites such as “Pretty Heart,” “To Be Loved by You,” and “Hell of a Year,” has won fans with his mix of Americana and country, infused with a bit of blues, soul, and folk rock. Currently touring with country crooner Thomas Rhett, McCollum is a natural choice to open the 2023 RodeoHouston concert series, as the singer-songwriter drew a crowd of 73,243 at last year’s rodeo, marking the fourth-highest paid rodeo/concert attendance in 2022.

Fittingly, custom-designed caps commemorating Opening Day and McCollum’s return to RodeoHouston will be available for purchase online.

New for 2023, a special Opening Day celebration will feature a performance by a local band on the Stars Over Texas Stage before McCollum’s show. Special giveaways will include 10,000 custom-made Howdy bobbleheads for early arrivers that morning (starting at 10 am). Visitors can expect a host of activities including an Opening Day Parade at NRG Park.

As for the highly anticipated 2023 RodeoHouston entertainer will be announced at a later date, plus more Opening Day details, per the rodeo.

“Everyone looks forward to the upcoming Rodeo season all year long, and we hope all Rodeo fans will circle Opening Day on their 2023 calendars, as this will be a day you won’t want to miss,” Chris Boleman, rodeo president and CEO, noted in a statement. “February 28 will truly be a Houston-themed celebration, as we kick off the 2023 Rodeo season with Houston’s-own country music star Parker McCollum closing out the day with another unforgettable RodeoHouston performance.”

The 2023 Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo and all RodeoHouston performances are scheduled for February 28–March 19, 2023 at NRG Park.

Houston high schools score high marks as Texas' best in 2022

A+ rating

Several campuses in the Houston area have earned extra credit as the best high schools in Texas.

In the latest rankings from education review website Niche, Houston's Carnegie Vanguard High School and Debakey High School for Health Professions come in No. 4 and No. 5 respectively among the state's best public high schools.

Meanwhile, Awty International School comes in at No. 2 (up from No. 3 last year) on the list of the state’s best private high schools.

Here's how Houston schools scored:

  • Houston ISD’s Carnegie Vanguard High School, No. 4 among public high schools
  • Katy ISD’s Seven Lakes High School, No. 5 among public high schools
  • William P. Clements High School, No. 5 among public high schools
  • Houston ISD’s Debakey High School for Health Professions, No. 5 among public high schools
  • Houston ISD’s Kinder High School for the Performing and Visual Arts, No. 9 among public high schools
  • The John Cooper School in The Woodlands, No. 6 among private high schools
  • The Village School in Houston, No. 7 among private high schools
  • The Kincaid School in Houston, No. 10 among private high schools
For those interested in private schools, here are the top Houston institutions this year.
  • The Awty International School
  • The John Cooper School
  • The Village School
  • The Kinkaid School
  • Strake Jesuit College Preparatory

“Some of the biggest decisions that parents face have to do with their children’s education,” Luke Skurman, founder and CEO of Niche, says in a news release. “We strive to put as much power in their hands as possible so they can make informed decisions with confidence.”

Niche says that while traditional rankings rely heavily on metrics like test scores and academic performance, its rankings combine ratings from current students, alumni, and parents with data from the U.S. Department of Education to evaluate teachers, resources, facilities, extracurricular activities and more.

Here’s how other Texas schools and school districts fared in this year’s Niche rankings.

Austin area

  • Austin ISD’s Liberal Arts & Science Academy, No. 2 among public high schools
  • Eanes ISD’s Westlake High School, No. 6 among public high schools
  • Round Rock ISD’s Westwood High IB World School, No. 8 among public high schools
  • St. Stephen’s Episcopal School in Austin, No. 4 among private high schools
  • Eanes ISD, No. 1 among best school districts
Dallas area

Dallas ISD’s School for the Talented & Gifted tops the list of the state’s best public high schools, and St. Mark’s School of Texas in Dallas leads the list of the state’s best private high schools. Both schools ranked first on their respective Niche lists last year.

San Antonio area

  • Keystone School in San Antonio, No. 9 among private high schools
  • BASIS Texas Charter Schools in San Antonio, No. 4 among school districts

Rio Grande Valley

  • South Texas ISD in Mercedes, No. 2 among school districts