The Washington area has been blessed with a number of restaurants, past and present, that serve genuine Sichuan cuisine, from Great Wall Szechuan House near Logan Circle to any one of chef Peter Chang’s strip-mall way stations on the road to Richmond.
But Washington has never seen anything like Ba Guo Bu Yi, a Chinese chain dedicated to spreading Sichuan culture outside the province. That could change next year if all goes as Oren Molovinsky plans; the veteran restaurateur and partner in Mala Tang in Arlington has been talking to the parent company of Ba Guo Bu Yi to open a location in the District, possibly in the Penn Quarter area.
The Ba Guo Bu Yi ownership was originally eyeballing Chinatown — otherwise known as Chinablock — but Molovinsky told them, “They don’t want to be in Chinatown and be stigmatized as a cheap Chinese restaurant,” he says.
So how did a restaurateur who worked with Mie N Yu for years get involved with this Chinese importation project?
Look no further than Liu Chaosheng, Molovinsky’s chef and partner in Mala Tang. Liu is related to a high-level chef in the Ba Guo Bu Yi company, which approached Liu about opening a location in the United States. Molovinsky says he and Liu have been working for three years now to open a branch of Ba Guo Bu Yi in Washington.
“Slowly, we’re getting them to understand what it takes to own and run a restaurant in the District,” Molovinsky tells All We Can Eat with a small laugh.
Trying to explain Ba Guo Bu Yi to the uninitiated — as I was until yesterday — is tricky. Each location is large, usually two stories, and serves not only authentic Sichuan cuisine but also authentic Sichuan culture on stage, including the so-called “face-changing” performances from Sichuan opera. According to the Theatre Beijing Web site, face-changing involves a performer who “whips through half a dozen or more fearsome and brightly colored face masks seemingly by magic.”
Molovinsky expects to have a lease signed within six months and to open a D.C. location of Ba Guo Bu Yi within a year. Liu will be a partner and consulting chef with the District outlet of Ba Guo Bu Yi, Molovinsky says.
In the meantime, however, Mala Tang will be expanding its hot pot-heavy menu to embrace Sichuan dishes, including iconic plates such as mapo tofu, twice-cooked pork and cumin beef. While Molovinsky and Liu had always intended to offer Sichuan dishes at Mala Tang, the new menu’s debut this week is a practical one. It seems the hot-pot concept doesn’t attract a regular clientele. Molovinsky says some customers have told him they ”would come back more often if you had more dishes.”
“It’s very hard to develop the frequency. . ..when you only have the hot pot,” Molovinsky says.
The menu isn’t as extensive as Liu’s offerings at his other Sichuan outlet, Hong Kong Palace, but it will be just as distinctive. “He doesn’t stick to the authentic recipes from Sichuan,” Molovinsky says. “It’s his own twist on it.”
Mala Tang will serve as something of a customer-training ground for the forthcoming Ba Guo Bu Yi, Molovinsky notes. Liu and the rest of the team at Mala Tang want to educate Americans on how to order and eat and enjoy Sichuan food and drink. It’s not just about pigging out on spicy-and-numbing dishes, Molovinsky says.
“It’s not a meal, it’s a gathering,” Molovinsky says. “You take a nibble here and a nibble there. . . then you drop your chopsticks and talk for awhile.”
The meal is about “respect for the people you’re eating with.”