|Beef konjac stew, Mala Sichuan Bistro|
My dining companion was experiencing the eponymous sensation with the food of Mala Sichuan Bistro, a newish joint in the Chinatown/Bellaire area in Houston. I'm particularly intrigued by the choice of name, as a Spanish speaker will read that as meaning "bad girl". But in Chinese, mala describes the simultaneous feeling of spiciness and numbing conferred by the use of Sichuan peppercorns, the signature flavoring of the region. And Mala is unapologetic about the use of the spice.
In fact, don't come expecting to have the stereotypical American perception of Chinese food - the staff here pride themselves in the "exotic". This is the first restaurant I've been in Houston with konjac on the menu - a high glucomannan gel made from the root of the Devil's tongue plant. Stewed with beef and pickled ginger, it appears to substitute for the more expensive sea cucumber in texture.
One warning: the restaurant itself is rather difficult to find from the street. Although it looks nondescript from the outside, entering the door, it opens into a spacious and nicely appointed restaurant, with prompt service, and a staff particularly welcoming of English-speakers uncomfortable with Chinese words. I can think of few places one should try taking a taste of the wild side. And don't worry - the mala sensation wears off quickly.
|The surprise hit of the night: crispy spicy pork intestines. Chewy, crunchy, flavorful.|
|Ants on a Tree. Despite the name, there's neither trees nor ants involved. Rather, minced meat is stir fried with the glass noodles, and they cling to the noodles like ants on a tree. This is but one of the more poetic dish names.|
|Crispy and spicy chicken. I found the chicken pieces too small, and there's certainly no shortage of dried chiles in use, but the flavor was on point. There's a second spicy chicken on the menu, but we didn't order it.|