Friday, July 22, 2011
Genre: Chinese, Sichuan Hot Pot
So a new hot pot competitor is town, but its trendier than your typical hole-in-the-wall found in a crowded, smelly, Asian shopping center. Mala Tang is a new, hip hot pot joint in the heart of Arlington, close by the Clarendon metro stop. Now I'm pretty sure that this place was opened up by the same owner of Uncle Liu's Hot Pot, that being Chef Liu, who is from the motherland of Sichuan hot pot, Chengdu. The first thing you notice when you walk into Mala Tang, is the upscale Asian themed decor; it looks like one of those fancy Asian furniture stores. What's neat about Mala Tang, that's not typical at your usual hot pot joint, is each seat gets their own mini burner for your hot pot so you can get what broth you want and not worry about mixing up your food with your friends'. Although personally, I like having one big hot pot in the center of the table because it creates a more social set up.
I bought two of the Open Table vouchers that included four Prix Fix dinners for $80. We had a table of nine so I was kind of nervous they wouldn't let us use two vouchers because most restaurants only allow one voucher per table. The manager was nice enough to not only let us use both, but applied the discount for the Prix Fixed menu to our ninth person! I thought that was very nice of them. Our waitress was named Natasha who was very sweet and patient with us. She took her time explaining how the menu worked. The Prix Fix menu included three courses; the first course is the Xiao Chi (means small dish in Chinese- kind of like a mid-day snack). You got your choice of mushroom salad, spicy cold noodles, spicy cucumber salad, and Zhong dumplings (typical street food dishes). Seeing that we had nine people at our table, we got a couple of each. The spicy cucumber salad was different from the garlic cucumber salad I'm use to eating. It's got a heavy peppercorn flavor marinated to its core; an excellent and refreshing dish! The mushroom salad was seasoned great as well and the mushroom's texture was chewy and soft- another recommended dish! My favorite however has got to be the spicy cold noodles. I've had a lot of variations of spicy cold noodles before, but this one's got to be one of the top three I've tried. Chewy egg noodles, spicy chili and peppercorn dressing, and just the right amount of heat! Dumplings were good too but I've had better.
For the second course, you start off by choosing your broth for your hot pot. You first pick whether you want it mala or mild. Mala means a type of spicy-ness characterized by the counter acting flavors of spicy chili peppers and numbing peppercorns. Then you pick either the traditional broth or the vegetable broth. None of us knew what vegetable broth meant so we all got traditional. Then you select your protein from a list of chicken, flounder, sirloin, pork, shrimp or tofu, then two vegetables, either enoki mushrooms, napa cabbage, bean sprouts, potatoes, bamboo shoots, white mushrooms, celery and broccoli. Personally, I chose pork, enoki mushrooms, and potatose with mala broth. First thing you'll notice when they bring out the food, is the enormous mound of meat and vegetables! Don't worry, they actually hide cabbage under your meat so it looks to be more than there actually is. As for the vegetables, yeah there's really that much. I'd like to say it's enough to feed two people, but I ate my entire dish.
The meal came with a few pre-made sauces which kind of tasted like sesame oil with some garlic, salt, and a bit of sa-cha (Chinese BBQ sauce). We asked for more of the sa-cha cause we're use to eating hot pot with a TON of that stuff. The sauce part was kind of disappointing cause I'm use to being able to make my own sauce when eating hot pot. The mala broth was good, but I wish it was more spicy! I couldn't get enough of the chili and peppercorn flavors coming through my ingredients. The pork was good, sliced in finely thin pieces. Good for fast cooking. The enoki mushrooms were good too like they always are and cooked in a mere ten seconds. I did run into a bit of a problem with the potatoes however. I got potatoes cause I was disappointed they didn't have taro in the Prix Fix menu, so got potatoes as a hopeful replacement. The potatoes took forever to cook and couldn't soak in flavor nearly as efficiently as taro. I got too impatient to wait on the potatoes so eventually just started eating them crunchy. Other ingrediants I tried off of my friends were the flounder, sirloin, and tofu, which were all good choices as well.
And finally for the last course, dessert, you could choose either sesame balls or some cake (I forgot what kind but I remember it being really none-Chinese sounding like Carrot Cake or something). We all went with the sesame balls. The sesame balls came out fresh and hot! The inside is filled with black sesame instead of red bean which I like a lot better! I'm also glad the dessert wasn't too big because we were all stuffed at that point!
Some good things I liked about Mala Tang was their beautiful ambiance and excellent service. Bus boys were very good at refilling your pot with broth and refilling your waters. Something I'm not use to at Chinese restaurants! Our waitress was very attentive and helpful. She came back frequently to make sure we had everything we needed. The Xiao Chi were some of the best Sichuan style dishes I've had and I want to go back and try more of them, especially their Mung Bean Noodles which look awesome! Their hot pot was pretty good too. Ingredients were all very fresh and it came in huge portions.
However, I'm use to a very different set of menu items when it comes to Sichuan hot pot. I like to be able to order a variety of ingredients with no limitation. You could do that here too, but the cost of doing that will nip you in the butt. Because the portions are so big, there is only so much you can order. I'd prefer it if the a la cart choices were smaller so you could get many and share it. I also wish they had choices I'm more accustom to like taro, fish cakes, eggs, dumplings, rice cakes, and noodles. I also like being able to make my own sauce! I think mala tang may be better for the trendy American (which is probably the target they were going for). Chef Liu figured he could have his cheap hole-in-the-wall for the more adventurous eaters at Uncle Liu's and his hip, trendy restaurant located in Arlington for the more luxurious eaters at Mala Tang. I'm sure he will probably have no problem capturing both markets. As for me, I'll stick with cheap hole-in-the-wall for the most part, but occasionally head over to Mala Tang if I feel like having a meal in luxury. Check out their cool promotional video below!
3434 Washington Blvd
Arlington, VA 22201