100 Favorite Dishes 2012: No. 6, Ma Po Tofu at Mala Sichuan

Photo by Katharine Shilcutt
This year leading up to our annual Best of Houston® issue, we're counting down our 100 favorite dishes in Houston. This list comprises our favorite dishes from the last year, dishes that are essential to Houston's cultural landscape and/or dishes that any visitor (or resident) should try at least once.

Photo by Troy Fields
Mala Sichuan's team of all-Sichuan cooks ensures that you'll be getting a full dose of mala sauce.
I was addicted to ma po tofu from the first time I tried a dish of the real stuff at Yummy Kitchen, a Taiwanese restaurant that shares space with Mala Sichuan in the Metropole shopping center in Chinatown. But even as a ma po neophyte, I knew that the ruddy dish of ground pork, tofu, ginger and scallions was missing a vital piece: the numbing heat of Sichuan peppercorns.

Thankfully, you can find those peppercorns in spades right next door at Mala Sichuan. It's appropriate for a place whose name literally translates to "numbing" (ma, or 麻) and "spicy" (la, or 辣). If a restaurant named after mala sauce and Sichuan cuisine didn't offer some truly mind-blowing heat in its dishes, I can't imagine it'd last too long in the ultra-competitive boundaries of Houston's vibrant Chinatown. Instead, Mala Sichuan has become one of the area's hottest restaurants -- no pun intended -- since opening in early 2011.

As it's one of the flagship dishes of Sichuan cuisine, it's only fitting that ma po tofu is also one of Mala Sichuan's best dishes. Both ma and la are found in great quantities in the dark red, steaming bowl of thick, jiggly tofu cubes and sweet pork that are brought to the table. After only a couple of bites, you'll notice that signature white-hot, palate-cleansing heat from the mala sauce -- a unique kind of heat that's like turning your mouth inside out and immersing it in ice-cold water. It's shocking and sudden and oddly invigorating. And after a few minutes, it's gone and you're ready for another round.

To keep the fun going, I recommend ordering a few dishes that don't have that numbing heat to them: the sweetly nutty Funky Stick Chicken, for example, or the Four Joy Lion's Head, four softball-size pork meatballs in a ginger-and-garlic-spiked brown sauce. Besides allowing your tastebuds a rest between swan dives into that gloriously spicy mala sauce, the array of flavors will let you appreciate your ma po tofu that much more.

The list so far:

No. 100: Chili cheese mac at Jus' Mac
No. 99: Texas turkey sandwich at Spec's
No. 98: Custard at Petite Sweets
No. 97: Caprichos mixtos at Taqueria Monterrey Chiquito
No. 96: Pineapple-wasabi burger at Lankford Grocery
No. 95: Farmer's MKT Pizza at Phoenicia's MKT Bar
No. 94: Potatoes at Money Cat Brunch
No. 93: Breakfast tacos at Sunrise Taquito
No. 92: Hot dog at Tacos D.F.
No. 91: Avocado gelato at Frozen Cafe
No. 90: Chicken sandwich at JerryBuilt Homegrown Burgers
No. 89: Beer-battered asparagus at Hearsay
No. 88: Honey Badger omelet at Kraftsmen Cafe
No. 87: Pastelitos de carne at El Jalapeño
No. 86: Pancakes at Union Kitchen
No. 85: Wild boar and crab pizza at Boheme
No. 84: Breakfast croissant at BB Donuts
No. 83: Pretzel at Anvil Bar & Refuge
No. 82: Short rib sandwich at Shepherd Park Draught House
No. 81: Grilled shrimp po-boy at Pappadeaux
No. 80: Dahi puri at Shiv Sagar
No. 79: Aporreado at Los Corrales
No. 78: Oxtail francobolli at Aldo's Cucina Italiana
No. 77: Tonkotsu at Cafe Kubo's
No. 76: Spinach danish from Angela's Oven
No. 75: Pupusas at El Petate
No. 74: Pheasant dog at Sammy's Wild Game Grill
No. 73: X-Tudo burger at Friends Pizzeria
No. 72: Esparragos gratinados at Tintos
No. 71: Gua bao at Yummy Kitchen
No. 70: Geisha dog at Happy Endings
No. 69: Oyster po-boy and gumbo at Goode Co. Seafood
No. 68: Ceviche at Sirena Seafood
No. 67: Caldo de mariscos at Taqueria Arandas
No. 66: Banana pudding at Pizzitola's
No. 65: Fried catfish and gumbo at Cafe-A-La
No. 64: Soft-shell crabs at Banana Leaf
No. 63: Macaroni and cheese at Vic & Anthony's Steakhouse
No. 62: Torta burger at El Gran Malo
No. 61: Black bean burger at Ziggy's
No. 60: Parillada at Pampa Grill
No. 59: Peanut butter and jalapeño jelly burger at Wicked Whisk
No. 58: Eggplant involtini at Giacomo's Cibo e Vino
No. 57: Lone Star dog at James Coney Island
No. 56: Sushi at Sushi Miyagi
No. 55: Palestinian chicken at Al Aseel
No. 54: Roast beef sandwich at Local Foods
No. 53: Mexico City plate at Molina's Cantina
No. 52: Tacos at Brothers Taco House
No. 51: Branzino at Lucio's BYOB
No. 50: Beef sweetbreads at Feast
No. 49: Golden Doomba Special at the Rice Box Truck
No. 48: Malted waffle at City Cafe
No. 47: Banh mi bo kho at Cafe TH
No. 46: Chicken fried steak at Triple A
No. 45: Larissa plate at Harry's
No. 44: Spaghetti carbonara at Coppa Ristorante Italiano
No. 43: Wings and grits at The Breakfast Klub
No. 42: Frito pie at C&D Burger Shoppe
No. 41: Pollo con mole at El Gallo de Jalisco
No. 40: Fried avocado taco at H-Town StrEATs
No. 39: Rigatoni in bolognese sauce at Paulie's
No. 38: Chorizo kolaches at Peña's Donut Heaven
No. 37: Sashimi at Dadami
No. 36: Half-pound burger at benjy's
No. 35: Fried chicken at Haven
No. 34: Whole-fried speckled trout at Liberty Kitchen
No. 33: Moules congolaise at Jeannine's Bistro
No. 32: Pancakes at Fountain View Cafe
No. 31: Pineapple with chile en polvo at Canino's
No. 30: Fried chicken at Barbecue Inn
No. 29: Dirty Burque at Green Seed Vegan
No. 28: Egusi at Finger Licking Bukateria
No. 27: Brisket and turkey at CorkScrew BBQ
No. 26: Menudo at La Mexicana
No. 25: Shrimp and grits at Shade
No. 24: Kinilaw at Reef
No. 23: Lamb at El Hidalguense
No. 22: Gumbo at Danton's
No. 21: Chicken-fried water buffalo at The Hay Merchant
No. 20: Roasted cauliflower at Roost
No. 19: Truffled egg toast at Dolce Vita
No. 18: 63-degree egg at Brasserie 19
No. 17: Drunken foie gras at Philippe
No. 16: Beet salad at Triniti
No. 15: Yogi thali at Pondicheri
No. 14: Bialy and lox at The Hot Bagel Shop
No. 13: Ribs at Gatlin's
No. 12: Venison carpaccio at Thanh Phuong
No. 11: Camarones henesy en hamaca at Arturo Boada Cuisine
No. 10: Prosciutto and arugula pizza at Pizaro's Pizza Napoletana
No. 9: Crawfish at The Hideaway on Dunvale
No. 8: Pho at Pho Binh
No. 7: Ceviche at La Fisheria

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Location Info

Mala Sichuan Bistro

9348 Bellaire, Houston, TX

Category: Restaurant

Yummy Kitchen

9326 Bellaire Blvd., Houston, TX

Category: Restaurant

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FattyFatBastard topcommenter

Am I reading that correctly?  The ma po tofu comes with ground pork?  I'm not a huge tofu fan.

kshilcutt moderator editor

 @FattyFatBastard Yes, ma po tofu traditionally comes with ground pork. Tofu is not used as a meat replacement or as a vegetarian alternative in Asian cuisines; instead, it's a food to be enjoyed on its own intrinsic merits (texture being chief among those). This is a dish that's turned many of my tofu-fearing friends onto the stuff.

FattyFatBastard topcommenter

 @kshilcutt Ok, this one sounds pretty bad ass.  I will definitely be trying this one soon.  And Papppa Geno's new location is close enough, as well.

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