Personal hot pots shine at Mala Tang
By Candy Sagon
Sunday, Nov. 20, 2011
The first time we went to Mala Tang, the six-month-old Sichuan hot pot restaurant in Arlington, we ended up too stuffed to even try a hot pot.
We had decided to order a few appetizers to nibble on while we sipped our drinks and took in the ruby red walls, gleaming dark wood tables and nicely modulated techno music.
The menu features a variety of xiao chi - little street food dishes - both hot and cold. So we told the waitress we wanted the spicy cold noodles and the mushroom salad.
She nodded approvingly but added: "You should try the zhong dumplings. They are so good. My favorite."
Okay, zhong dumplings, we said. And some tofu fries, because, well, what a great concept. And how about an order of the green scallion pancakes, too?
The waitress scribbled all this down.
"The steamed pork buns, they're really little. You should try them," she said.
Fine, why not. Six plates of food for two people isn't excessive, is it?
That is why it wasn't until our second visit, this time with another couple, that we tried Mala Tang's pride and joy: individual-size hot pots.
Hot-pot meals are a long-standing tradition in Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province and the home town of Mala Tang co-owner and chef Liu Chaosheng. In Chengdu, a family typically gathers around a communal hot pot for dinner, cooking fresh vegetables and strips of tender meat or fish in a flavorful, bubbling broth.
That's exactly what you'll see if you go to one of Liu's other restaurants: Uncle Liu's Hot Pot in Falls Church, where large, enthusiastic groups enjoy the Chinese version of fondue.
But Oren Molovinsky, Liu's business partner in Mala Tang and the former manager of Georgetown's Mie N Yu, says the more formal restaurants in Chengdu also give customers personal hot pots, a concept both men thought would be more appealing to Americans.
"We felt it was ideal for the American style of dining, which is more individualistic," Molovinsky says.
Or, as our waitress confided to us, "Americans don't always like cooking food in the same pot as other people."
So, all you individualists out there, at Mala Tang you can order a shiny little hot pot just for you, or just for you and a companion, or you can skip it entirely and be totally sated by the regular entrees or the street-food appetizers we found irresistible.
If you do go the hot-pot route, there are three types of broth to choose from: mild or spicy chicken broth (the latter fired up with dried chilies and red peppercorns) and vegetarian. The spicy broth has been toned down some for Western palates, but sensitive types will still find it eye-wateringly hot. For protein, diners can order beef, lamb, seafood or chicken; vegetable choices include items such as broccoli, bamboo shoots and bok choy. Small bowls of dipping sauce are included for dunking your cooked ingredients before eating.
On this visit, one couple shared a hot pot of mild broth, while the other couple got two pots: one mild, one spicy. Our waitress suggested that each person order a protein and a vegetable and then share the ingredients, but when four of us did that, the portions seemed big enough to feed six or eight.
Molovinsky says the biggest seller at Mala Tang - by five to one - is the wine-marinated beef, and that's understandable. The restaurant uses extremely tender, flavorful grass-fed beef from Grayson County, Va., down on the North Carolina state line. There's also a little razzle-dazzle to its presentation. The rosy mound of paper-thin, marinated slices comes with a glass of wine. The waitress upends the glass with a flourish, allowing the wine to drench the beef. One suggestion: Don't overcook the beef if you want to retain its tenderness.
But, honestly, you can't go wrong with any of the other protein choices we tried. We loved the strips of fresh flounder, the plump shrimp, the juicy lamb.
Among the vegetables, fresh spinach goes well with the lamb. Tender, mild green bean leaves are a treat with anything, as are the pearly white enoki mushrooms and the crunchy rounds of lotus root, with their characteristic petal-shaped holes. If there's room in your pot, get the toothsome house-made noodles, too.
As for the street food appetizers, our waitress's recommendations were spot on. The delicate, pork-filled zhong dumplings rock. They are chef Liu's signature dish, one he perfected at Hong Kong Palace (yet another of his restaurants).
Also terrific: the cold, spicy noodles. Thick, spaghetti-like noodles in a spicy soy sauce flecked with chilies make your lips buzz and tingle as you slurp them up. A cold salad of earthy, chewy wood ear mushrooms is a refreshing contrast.
The chili-dusted tofu fries, with their crisp exterior and soft interior, are another great invention. A friend asked, "Is this hurting tofu or helping fries?" I have no idea, but I can imagine munching these with a cold beer and a football game on TV.
One appetizer to avoid: the green onion pancakes. We tried them on all three visits, and they were consistently doughy and underseasoned, nowhere near as good as the ones we've had at Uncle Liu's.
Finally, don't overlook the traditional entrees. I'd give the cumin fish four stars. It has a light, crunchy fried coating and is peppery with ginger and garlic. Ditto for the gong bao chicken, stir-fried with dried chilies, garlic, green onion and peanuts. It's sneaky-hot, but so good you'll mop your sweaty forehead and keep eating.
Service at Mala Tang is energetic and earnest. The staff has been well trained in explaining the hot-pot process and making recommendations for those uncertain about what to try. Waiters are unfailingly friendly and helpful, although occasionally distracted when the restaurant is full.
Beer, wine and sake are the only alcohol choices, but there is a variety of sake-based cocktails. Try the mojito.
About the only thing that diners may find lacking are desserts, which Molovinsky acknowledges are not a high priority with Chinese chefs. The golf-ball-size, deep-fried sesame balls filled with sweet bean paste are fine, but Molovinsky has other ideas in the works: namely some Asian-inspired flavors of gelato to help cool the palate after all that Sichuan food.