“There is a Chinese saying that it takes 10 years to wield a great sword,” Xiong told CultureMap. “This restaurant is the sword that took me 10 years to wield.”
More than the day-to-day operations of the restaurant — she and her husband and business partner Heng Chen have that part down — the “great sword” refers to the design of the restaurant. Mala Sichuan has come a long way from its original location in Chinatown, a second-generation space that the couple have furnished as economically as possible.
An ornamental roof hangs above.
“I have more resources to build nicer restaurants closer to what I had in mind,” she says. “It has the design and architectural characteristics that we have now.”
Working with designer Gin Braverman of Gin Design Group, Xiong has realized his vision for a restaurant that incorporates traditional Chinese structures as well as nods to Sichuan Province and his hometown of Chengdu. They include an abacus-inspired bamboo installation, known as the First Calculator, and light fixtures inspired by kongming lanterns, which are used at festivals to send wishes to the sky, Xiong says.
“Working with Cori has been extremely rewarding,” says Braverman. “His attention to detail in keeping all the elements truly Sichuan was so educational. She had a very clear vision for creating this modern and dramatic take on Sichuan culture, and we were thrilled to help bring her vision to life.
Xiong cites a floating pagoda roof as something she is particularly proud of. Created by a Chinese craftsman, the structure arrived in America by boat. Both coins pass through the doors of the restaurant.
“Everything is done by what is called mortise and tenon. Its old carpentry without using nails or glue. It’s like a 3D puzzle with wood,” says Xiong. “When they weren’t installed, you would have seen they were like puzzle pieces.”
Expect to see a few eye-catching elements on Instagram: in particular, a wall of waving silver cats – complete with the phrase “raise your hands if Sichuan has your tongue” – and face-changing “Bian Lian” masks of the Sichuan Opera.
The Gin Design Group of Houston designed the ornate interior.
When it comes to food, Xiong notes that Mala has mostly stabilized their menu over the years, which is good news for anyone who loves staples like red oil dumplings, spicy and crispy chicken. and the lamb with cumin. The new location is reviving a dish called “Fantastic Little Chicken,” a quarter bone-in, skin-on chicken thigh that’s sautéed and served with jalapenos and fermented black sauce.
Other new dishes include the “Christmas tree stocking,” which takes its name from its style of plating and adornment of red and green peppers. She also recommends the prawn mayo which is served with a chilli dip that sets it apart from the version served at other Sichuan restaurants.
For now, the new Mala will serve a selection of beers and wines similar to Montrose’s. Veteran bartender Chris Frankel develops Mala’s first-ever cocktail menu. It will focus on light and refreshing drinks that incorporate both 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 restaurants 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 open-minded and less surprised, ‘wow, this is something new'” , she says.
“I think people are used to discovering new things. I think it’s a big change.