Mala Tang Owners Return From China With New Sichuan Menu
Mala Tang owners Oren Molovinsky and chef Liu Chaosheng recently returned from a 10-day eating tour of China, and they've brought with them dozens of traditional Sichuan dishes that debuted this week.
The Arlington hot-pot spot owners began their travels in Nanjing, where they attended a conference promoting economic ties between China and the U.S. They're consulting with an upscale Chinese restaurant chain called Ba Guo Bu Yi that's looking to set up in the District, who invited them to the event. Molovinsky and Chaosheng then headed to Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province and Chaosheng's hometown. "It was all food, and it was all day," Molovinsky says. (Y&H just so happened to write about such restaurant research trips and the quest for authenticity in last week's print column.)
The new menu, inspired by the trip, has about 80 family-style entrees divided by proteins. Previously, the restaurant's menu focused almost exclusively on hot pot. Molovinsky says the dishes may share their names with typical carryout fare, but Mala Tang's versions are made-to-order and aim to be authentic in their preparations.
Among Molovinsky's favorites: tiger skin hot peppers (green charred peppers served over Chinkiang black vinegar) and beef with vegetable in peppery broth, which uses the Sichuan peppercorn, creating a tingly sensation. For now, the full menu is available every day for lunch and Sunday to Thursday for dinner. About a dozen specials from the new menu are running Friday and Saturday night in order not too overwhelm the kitchen, which is adjusting to all the new items.
The trip has also informed the way the Mala Tang serves its entrees. Diners aren't given different plates; rather, they're encouraged to eat from the same shared dish. "I know that's kind of taboo, but it's kind of charming too," Molovinsky says. While in Chengdu, he also noted that a lot of the "down and dirty, hardcore, in-the-street type of restaurants" had produce stands and fish tanks out front, from which diners could pick the ingredients for their dinner. Molovinsky says he's looking into ways Mala Tang might be able to incorporate a similar set-up inside the restaurant.
The trip was also research for Molovinsky and Chaosheng's next concept, which will focus on Sichuan street food and likely be located inside the District. That concept is still in the research phase, but Molovinsky says it could open as soon as next year.
Photo courtesy Oren Molovinsky