Inspired by Houston’s Mala Sichuan Bistro: Mala Beef Jerky (Mala Niu Rou Gan)
A few days ago, Jianyun Ye, the chef at one of my favorite Sichuan restaurants, Houston’s Mala Sichuan Bistro, was nominated for a James Beard Award as Best Chef Southwest. Two other Chinese chefs working in authentic Sichuan restaurants owned by Mainland Chinese restaurateurs also got regional Best Chef nods for 2017: Ri Liu at Atlanta’s Masterpiece (which we visit frequently) and Wei Zhu of Chengdu Gourmet in Pittsburgh.
Check out those locations. Not NYC, SF or LA, but Houston, Atlanta and Pittsburgh. Dare I believe that all of America is embracing the true taste of Sichuan food, including numbing and spicy (mala), “strange flavor” and “fish-fragrant”? The odd-bits and the chili oil? The whole fish and the pigs’ feet?
I’d like to think so, but while these chefs and restaurants have cracked the glass ceiling of respect that’s still a challenge for “immigrant” restaurants, I fear that there’s still a long road to travel before most Americans “get” Sichuan food beyond too-sweet kung pao chicken and over-beefy mapo tofu.
Houston—said by some to be the most diverse city in America—is no backwater, of course. And as it finally gets its due as a great food city (David Chang calls it “the next global food mecca”), Mala Sichuan Bistro remains on everyone’s list of the best places to eat there.
It’s been a fast—but not an easy—rise to fame, according to Cori Xiong, the young owner of Mala Sichuan Bistro. Cori and her husband and co-owner, Heng Chen, opened their second location of MSB in the artsy-tony neighborhood of Montrose in 2015 after a successful run with their first one in Houston’s large and sprawling Chinatown. They strode into Houston’s most storied neighborhood with a swagger while they were still in their 20s, after only four years in their first-ever business, which they opened right out of UT Austin with economics degrees freshly in hand.
Even America’s most celebrated Sichuan restaurant, the San Gabriel Valley’s Chengdu Taste, has yet to leave the safe embrace of Asian-majority areas—the challenges of which I discussed with its owners back in the summer. But I would go so far as to venture that the Montrose Mala Sichuan Bistro is the most authentic Sichuan restaurant in the most upscale, non-Asian neighborhood in America.
What special sauce allowed them to do that? It has to be more than the special sauce of their food, which is indeed special, and shows their skill in getting and keeping an accomplished chef. It has more to do with them as people and business owners. Cori grew up in the restaurant business, and her dad owns a Sichuan resto in Dallas. But a lot of her skill seems to be innate; the perfect combination of a Chinese youth and an American education. Heng also came to the U.S. as a teen to go to high school in Texas.
While the MSB Chinatown location is bare bones, the Montrose location—right across the street from Houston’s most acclaimed chef and MSB-champion Chris Shepherd’s Underbelly—is truly like entering a modern Chengdu dining hotspot. Cori has the style down pat, even though she left Chengdu at the age of 11. She had an artist create a gorgeous, giant mural of a Sichuan “face-changing” mask on a wall in the entry bar; she imported bamboo dining sets for the side patio from Sichuan that are just like those in Chengdu’s famed teahouses; she left the upstairs all dark and cozy and spotlit for prolonged drinking and eating among couples or friends. And instead of serving a facsimile of Sichuan food, she serves the real thing.
I’ve had a Twitter friendship with Cori for a couple years, so her restaurant was the first place I dined when I visited Houston in November. I was lucky enough to have Cori and Heng as my dinning companions—especially seeing as how Cori was pregnant and five days overdue at that point. I half expected dinner to be interrupted by Houston’s newest Sichuanese-American citizen, but little Vince held off four more days, allowing me to enjoy a full evening of stellar Sichuan food and conversation.
I let Cori do the ordering, and she started us off with hong you chao shou (red oil wontons) that had the loose-soft wrapping that they’re supposed to have, allowing the spicy red sauce to seep into the folds. The cold pork rolls in garlic sauce also measured up, as did the house special cold noodles.
I’ve mentioned here before that snacks and cold dishes are my favorite parts of Sichuan cuisine, and MSB had a generous assortment to choose from, including Chengdu classics like couples “lung” slices and red oil rabbit as well as the lesser-seen “house special sculpted kidney” and “peppercorn Arctic surf clams.” I got really excited when I spotted mala beef jerky, an old-school dish that you don’t see on many Sichuan menus in the U.S. but which I love—chewy, spicy, numbing and a perfect accompaniment to a cold beer (of which MSB has a well-chosen assortment along with a sommelier-selected wine list). What’s not to love?
Their version really scratched my itch for that dish, but I had to wonder what the locals thought of it. The name is a bit of a misnomer, since mala beef jerky is not chewy from curing and dehydration as jerky is but from intentional overcooking. And it’s quite numbing from a generous dose of Sichuan pepper powder (or oil). While those diners who live in or ventured to Chinatown to eat at the original MSB were seasoned eaters who knew what to expect, those in Montrose rum the gamut from seasoned to “where is the General Tso’s chicken?!”
Heng estimates the clientele as about 50/50 non-Chinese/Chinese at the Chinatown location and 80/20 at the Montrose outpost, and Cori admits there have been some “hiccups,” as the local media calls them, at the newest location of MSB. Some Yelp reviewers have left their (stinging) mark. She told me over dinner that even though their menu clearly states—and the waitstaff reiterates—not to eat all the oily broth and sauce that some classic Sichuan dishes float in, but merely to pluck out the pieces for consumption, some diners spoon the oil all over their rice—and then complain online that it’s oily. The menu also instructs guests not to eat the whole Sichuan peppercorns, but one family dug into them and then literally threatened to call the health department because the restaurant “tried to poison them.”
It’s a learning curve for your typical diner, and Cori and Heng understand this. They are patient. And they and Chef Ye have been wildly successful despite the need to educate diners in real Sichuan cuisine. Let’s hope others can follow their pioneering efforts, ushering mala into the mainstream across America.
James Beard nominations are only a symbol, but maybe—hopefully—also a harbinger of the acceptance and customers to come.
Barely sweetened chili oil and strongly numbing Sichuan pepper is the goal here. Use fresh and freshly ground red Sichuan pepper or, for a more citrusy, intriguing taste, try green Sichuan pepper, freshly roasted and ground. If you don’t have fresh, strong Sichuan pepper, it may be better to use Sichuan pepper oil, which retains its punch longer.
The meat undergoes three different cooking processes and two doses of flavorings, but it’s not as laborious as it sounds. While you’re pre-cooking the beef by boiling it, you’ll be making a Sichuan broth from chicken stock and assorted Chinese spices. After slicing and deep-frying the beef, you’ll then braise it in the spiced broth until the liquid is absorbed into the meat, flavoring it with star anise, cassia, fennel and other spices. A bonus is that you’ll have some leftover Sichuan spiced broth for later use in soup. The final step is the chili-oil-numbing-pepper bath.
I’ve tried this with skirt, flank and flatiron steak with success. Just don’t make the slices too thin or the pleasant chewiness will be more like jaw exercise. About 1/2-inch wide and a 2-3 inches long is ideal.
Make this as a starter or snack for your next party and watch people go from doubtful to delighted. If there’s any left over it’s also great the next day, eaten cold straight from the refrigerator.
- 1 pound beef steak (such as skirt, flatiron or flank)
- 4 cups chicken broth
- 1 tablespoon Shaoxing wine
- 4 tablespoons (a handful) Chinese braising spices (such as star anise, fennel, cassia bark, bay leaf, cloves, cao guo, sand ginger, etc.)
- 1 inch ginger, thinly sliced
- 2 green onions, cut in half
- 1 cup peanut or canola oil
- ½ teaspoon kosher salt
- ½ teaspoon sugar
- 3 tablespoons chili oil with flakes
- 4 teaspoons Sichuan chili flakes
- 2 teaspoons sesame oil
- 1 teaspoon red or green Sichuan pepper powder (more if the pepper isn't fresh and strong)
- Add 4 cups chicken broth to a medium sauce pan along with Shaoxing wine, Chinese spices, ginger and green onions. Bring to a boil, then lower heat and allow broth to simmer while you cook the beef.
- Bring a large pot of water to a boil and add whole steak. Cook at a low boil for about 15 minutes, until it is mostly cooked through. Remove steak and let it cool enough to cut. Slice into thick batons about ½-inch wide and 2-3 inches long.
- Heat wok until hot, then add 1 cup of oil or enough to deep-fry the meat. Heat oil to about 325° and add beef slices. Deep-fry beef until it is browned and crispy over half of the surface area. Remove from oil and set aside.
- Returning to the spiced broth, remove it from heat and strain the broth, leaving the spices behind.
- Pour off oil, clean wok and return to heat. When wok is hot, add about 1 tablespoon fresh oil to the wok as well as 1 CUP of the spiced broth, salt and sugar. Add the beef and bring the broth to a boil, then lower the heat and braise the beef at a low simmer for several minutes, until only 3-4 tablespoons of broth remains in the wok.
- Turn heat off and add chili oil, chili flakes, sesame oil and Sichuan pepper powder. Mix all ingredients well, then remove beef to a serving bowl. When cool, sprinkle with sesame seeds and garnish with fresh cilantro. Serve at room temperature.