Readers of this space are familiar with my raves over Liu’s other places Hong Kong Palace and Uncle Liu’s Hot Pot. These restaurants – both clearly very much worth your time – are suburban ethnic food in the sorts of places where you expect to find hole in the wall great ethnic food (strip malls in lower rent areas) targeting transplanted natives. But how do you take Sichuan cuisine, and the restaurant magic developed in ethnic no-frills environments, and make it crackle in the gringolicious, douchebag laden haven of Orange Line Arlington. Liu’s attempt to conquer the land of the white folks and gringoficaton of Sichuan cuisine is seen in Mala Tang in Clarendon, pretty clearly the best Chinese restaurant in the Metro-accessible Washington DC area. In Mala Tang Liu finds a way to upscale the decor, make the menu more “American” looking, and roll back the heat level a tad, while not dishonoring the Sichuan hot pot tradition and still delivering a terrific restaurant experience. We were particularly lucky to have Liu himself cooking tonight, and one hopes that the restaurant will hold this standard.
Mala Tang conceptually focuses on Sichuan street food – presented here in a small plate format – and of course hot pot, where a spicy (or mild, gringofication hello) boiling broth is at your table which you use to cook meats and vegetables at your table. In the Sichuan street food, we have some of things we were familiar with. We ordered Dan-Dan Noodles, noodles with Sichuan sauce and ground pork which were less spicy than I’ve had, but well flavored. The essential notes of Sichuan peppercorn and oil were there. We also ordered a small plate of cucumber salad, cucumber in chili oil which was stunningly good. The complex notes were there, pressed against the cold refreshing cucumber was a revelation.
That said, the star was the hotpot. I loved Uncle Liu’s, but to my shock, the Sichuan broth here was better. It had less heat, sure, but the depth of flavor was much more prevalent here. The broth, in addition to the key Sichuan flavors had hints of sweetness with dates and goji berries, and a little salty kick with preserved egg. It also had less chili oil than Uncle Liu’s did – which contributed to the lower heat level, but made the broth much more palatable as a post cooking soup. For things to cook in the hot pot, we ordered pork dumplings, which in this case were little cute dumplings that almost worked like a gnocchi once cooked in the pot – very tasty. We also used it to cook wine marinated beef (which had all sorts of layers between the marinade and the cooking liquid), snow pea leaves and enoki mushroom. All of it getting that extra kick of complexity from the lovely broth.
The restaurant as of this writing has only been open three weeks. The service however was pretty sharp – patient with our orders. The drinks may have stood faster delivery possibly and the heat sources are not adjustable … however, these are all very minor quibbles. Considering we are three weeks into the restaurant’s life, it’s actually quite smooth. Chef Liu could have a real breakthrough story here in bringing Sichuan to the masses. This is not Hong Kong Palace, but it is not aspiring to be that. But for the target market and the restaurants “upscale” aims, it is a total success.