When Mala Sichuan Bistro co-owner Cori Xiong first tried Chinese food in Dallas, Texas, she felt a sense of shock. Her stepmom had brought home a version of American Chinese food.
“What work this?” she remembers thinking. The flavors were much different, almost muted, when compared to the robust and spicy flavors she grew up with in China’s Sichuan province before she emigrated to Dallas with her family at age 12.
“I never got why early Chinese food restaurants invested in fake Chinese food that Americans would like,” says Xiong, on a recent Monday in her restaurant Mala Sichuan. “I don’t think we should do that. I always had the mentality that it should be whatever we eat. It should be real. We should make it authentic because I’m proud of it.”
Though Xiong didn’t have dreams of opening a restaurant growing up, it was a moment the now-restauranteur held onto throughout her childhood, adding proudly: “People of Sichuan know their food.” Xiong finally used it as fuel when her father asked her whether she’d be interested in opening a restaurant, she says.
Not knowing what to do with her economics degree from the University of Texas at Austin, Xiong says she obliged, and she and her husband opened their first restaurant, Mala Sichuan, in Bellaire’s Chinatown in 2011, emphasizing the many flavors of her homeland.
There, she didn’t shy away from the hard-hitting flavors she knew and loved, which was fortunately made possible when a longtime ban on Sichuan peppers, a crucial ingredient in many Sichuan dishes, was lifted. (The US Department of Agriculture outlawed the dried berry spice in 1968 in fear that the peppercorns could be damaging to local citrus plants. This resulted in many Chinese immigrants smuggling the peppercorns into the country in their luggage, which allowed them to still cook the Sichuan way at home, Xiong says. The ban was finally lifted in 2005, which allowed Xiong and her father’s restaurant to truly harness the flavors.)
Trowel, in itself, references the different flavors in Sichuan food, Xiong says — with “ma” referring to the numbing sensation caused by the peppercorn, and “la” referring to the “hot, tongue-searing result of capsaicin in chili peppers,” the restaurant notes on its menu.
Following the opening of her first restaurant, Xiong found that many Asian restaurants had a Sichuan dish or two, but a full menu dedicated to Sichuan food such as Mala’s was a rarity. The public’s response, including growing fanfare from local residents and chefs, media coverage, and support from investors, proved that Americans enjoyed the flavors, too, without dishes being watered down, she says.
“The city got to know that because of us,” she says.
Xiong and her husband have since opened five locations, including an outpost in Montrose in 2015, which Xiong says was the first Chinese and Sichuan restaurant inside of Houston’s loop; a restaurant in Katy in 2019 and Sugar Land in 2020.
Her latest location in Heights’ MKT mixed-use development, though, is closest to Xiong’s vision of what she’s always wanted Mala to be. “It’s like my dream house,” Xiong says.
Xiong says profits from the previous four outposts made way for the Heights’ location (600 N Shepherd Drive, Suite 453), which opened in September, donning decor that she says is the truest to Sichuan out of all of her restaurants.
Xiong says she once again enlisted the Gin Design Group. Gin’s chief designer Gin Braverman, who has lived in Asia, worked with a Tawainese design firm to make the dream come alive, paying homage to Chengdu, Xiong’s homeland in China.
The storefront’s circular figure is inspired by China’s “moon gate” passageways, and charming fabric lanterns hanging from the ceiling appear as if they’re floating into a dark blue night sky.
There are etched scenes of the Sichuan countryside on circular wooden plaques; a full-sized, traditional pagoda roof, handmade by Sichuan artists, that floats over the dining room; and a laser-cut, floor-to-ceiling partition that separates the service area.
The food is just as promised, with around 100 dishes, including Mala’s top-sellers, including the slinky and pleasantly spicy dan noodles; green tea bacon fried rice; the spicy and crispy fried chicken; the red oil dumplings; and the saucy mapo tofu, eaten best over white rice. Newer items include Mala’s three-cup chicken, chicken stock potstickers, squirrel tail fish with pineapple, a Christmas tree whole bass, mayo prawns, supreme bamboo, and dry pot mixed vegetables. The menu is rounded out by a host of new cocktails by popular local bartender Chris Frankel, one of Mala’s first customers, which pay homage to the 12 Chinese zodiac signs.
It’s all that much closer to Xiong’s vision and longtime tribute to home.
“There’s a saying in Chinese that it takes 10 years to weld a good sword,” she says. “This is my sword.”