PaperCity Magazine

PaperCity Houston November 2022

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R estaurateur Cori Xiong has a true American immigrant's success story to tell. A daughter of divorce, she arrived in this country at the age of 12 from her birthplace, Chengdu in the Chinese province of Sichuan. The young University of Texas grad opened the first Mala Sichuan Bistro in 2011 when she was 25. Eleven years later, she and husband, Heng Chen, of The By Laurann Claridge. Photography Bill Krampitz. Spice operate five Mala Sichuan Bistros, from Houston's Chinatown to Katy's Asian Town, Sugar Land, and Montrose. Most recently, Xiong and Chen upped the ante and opened their fifth location in the 12- acre M-K-T, a mixed-use urban industrial complex in the Houston Heights designed by Michael Hsu Office of Architecture. Gin Braverman, principal of Gin Design Group, was charged with creating a new look for the storied Houston restaurant. She and Xiong make a perfect pairing: Braverman, a restaurant designer who has made a name for herself designing some of the city's most inspiring restaurant spaces, lived in Asia for a time and worked with a Taiwanese design firm. She brings to Mala a deeply personal appreciation and knowledge of Chinese culture and architecture. Beneath the soaring 20-foot ceiling, an oversized wooden abacus acts as a screen to separate the entrance from the bar. One's eye inevitably lands on the massive pagoda roof suspended above the dining room: Handmade by Sichuan artisans, it was constructed solely with wood joinery, with nary a nail or screw. Braverman and her team recreated the bucolic Sichuan countryside with wall-hung round etchings that depict rural life, while floating above them are dozens of glowing fabric lanterns, which call to mind the wish lanterns set off in the sky on the eve of the Lunar New Year. The hand-plastered earthen walls are pressed with impressions of ginkgo leaves, while traditional clay roof tiles clad the exterior of the cocktail bar. This eatery is the first in the bunch to host a full bar with beer, wine, and specialty cocktails, each named for a sign in the Chinese zodiac. Sichuan fare is widely known to be rather spicy — but in reality, when properly prepared, the complex flavors highlight a variety and depth ranging from salty to sour, sweet to bitter and smoky, to the spices that give a dish its heat. For the uninitiated, Xiong explains that the word Mala actually denotes two spice sensations. "The Sichuan Province is particularly known to merge two types of spicy, 'Ma' and 'La,' in many of its dishes," she says. "The 'La' flavor is the hot, tongue- searing result of capsaicin in chili peppers that Americans recognize from a variety of different cuisines, while the 'Ma' flavor is something else entirely. It refers to a slight numbing sensation caused by the Sichuan peppercorn, a dried berry that activates the touch sensory receptors of the tongue and mouth, making the nerve endings feel they're being lightly and repeatedly touched, which perfectly primes the palate for the 'La' spices." For example, Mala's Sichuan-style salt and pepper prawns possess the heat of the "La," where battered jumbo shrimp are deep-fried then wok-fried with white onions and red and green peppers before the "Ma" — a seasoned powder that includes chili and peppercorn — is added to finish, making for a dish that lends heat to the tongue and a numbness to your lips ($20). Unlike the American version of Chinese food that Xiong recalls seeing when her stepmother worked in a "Chinese" restaurant here, where the food was unrecognizable to her, here Xiochi recalls the meals of her The new Mala Sichuan Bistro in the Heights 40

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