Beef stomach. Lamb stomach. Cow tongue. Rooster testicles. Pig’s kidney. Tenderloin. Tendon. Intestine. Gizzard. Artery. Chicken heart. Spam. It’s hard to think of a steakhouse, chophouse, or quite frankly any American restaurant that affordably serves more varieties of meat (or heck, vegetables) than MáLà Project, the fiery fever dream of a Sichuan spot with locations in the East Village and, as of six weeks ago, Bryant Park.
It’s just as tough to think of another culinary establishment that serves all of its wok-fried morsels in brown woven salad bowls. The kitchen sticks a foot-long wooden spoon into each communal serving — the kind used to mix romaine with vinaigrette — so that guests can toss duck tongues, oyster mushrooms, bok choy, five spice tofu, and sugary Chinese bacon into the puddle of chile oil sloshing around the bottom.
The chefs garnish this masterpiece with a fistful of cilantro. That’s my kind of salad.
The dish in question is dry pot, a broth-free cousin of sorts to the traditional Sichuan hot pot — where guests dip raw meats into flame-fired crocks of chile-laced beef tallow or soup. “By the end of the meal, I was almost delirious with heat,” journalist Fuchsia Dunlop wrote in her memoirs of a formative hot pot meal. “My mouth burned and tingled,” she added, describing the blend of buzzing, Novocaine-like numbingness and heat known as málà. “My body ran with sweat. I felt ragged and molten. Pain and pleasure were indistinguishable,” Dunlop wrote.
MáLà’s own dry pots traffic in precisely those sensations, though I’d politely suggest the pain and pleasure were quite distinguishable, with sometimes more of the latter than the former. Spam, normally a non-violent luncheon meat, feels like oral acupuncture here. A slice of pineapple, like a desert mirage, promises relief, until the flecks of pepper cause one’s tongue to vibrate.
Eye round of beef, sliced paper thin and crumpled up like a discarded sheet of looseleaf paper, acts as a sponge to the crimson oil. It evokes the sensation of consuming a French dip soaked in gunpowder tincture, then swallowing a match.
The fact that one keeps eating, despite the agony, is enough to make a rational diner question the nature of free will in the universe, or at least wonder what the heck they’re putting in here besides chiles. The answer, incidentally, is a lot; the spice blend includes black cardamom, orange peel, crushed gardenias, lesser galangal, nutmeg, and female ginseng.
Also worth noting: The lunchtime beef bowls ($13) cost less than an Omega Bowl from Sweetgreen.
MáLà is brought to us by Amelie Kang, a 26-year-old Tangshan native who studied at the Culinary Institute of America, and Meng Ai, who graduated NYU in 2016 with a masters in financial engineering. The savvy entrepreneurs, who hope to continue expanding, are part of a small but growing number of current or former Chinese university students who are opening restaurants across the U.S., giving voice to the diverse foodways of their homeland. Case in point: just next door to MáLà in the East Village is The Tang, a noodle shop opened by two NYU seniors last year.
New York of course has long benefited from a surfeit of excellent Sichuan spots. What MáLà brings to the table isn’t so much a creative riff on a regional cuisine, common for younger chefs, as a smart repackaging of it.
Traditional Sichuan venues ply their trade in environs that some might call utilitarian, with bright lighting, bar televisions, and tablecloths. MáLà’s two (equally awesome) locations, by contrast, adopt the visual lexicon of a stereotypically hip downtown establishment, employing brick walls, custom neon signage, communal tables, bench seating, waiters in distressed jeans, and carefully curated beer lists.
It would be easy to dismiss this all as branding, to argue that MáLà is simply pandering to a ubiquitous notion of stylishness. But there’s also something to be said for using modern design tropes as a counterpoint to the classically-minded food, which comes courtesy of chef Qilong Zhao, a Chengdu native.
Hao Noodle in the Village and Birds of a Feather in Bushwick generally abide by the same modish ethos. Together with MáLà, they form the Sichuan analogues to Keith McNally’s crowded brasseries, everyday places for the cool kids to hang out and grab some well-executed, non-cheffed up grub.
Liangfen ($8), arrive the way they’re typically served, the slithery mung bean noodles doused in a light oil, with just enough zing to warm up one’s palate for the more incendiary dry pot. Equally mild are the dan dan, a pitch perfect rendition of the classic noodles tossed with oyster sauce, chile, and numbing ground beef.
Slightly spicier is the husband and wife special, the famous Sichuan salad of tripe and lung, the former as snappy as shaved green apple, the latter packing a cool concentrated beefiness. For a firmer texture, a few degrees north of jerky, dried pig’s ear is a wonderfully leathery snack to last the duration of the meal.
Anyone who hasn’t tried a thousand year egg would be well served to order it here; the two month cure of clay, ash, and quicklime turns the firm white into a gelatinous black and the soft yolk into a gooey, pudding-like green. The flavor is distinctly mild (these can trend quite sulfurous), even more so when paired with shishito peppers and dunked in the accompanying pool of sweet soy.
One could subsist on small plates and dim sum here alone, but that would mean missing out on the main event.
Not too long ago, writers like Josh Ozersky were championing the virtues of nose-to-tail gastronomy, and chefs like David Chang were dedicating proper menu real estate to offal. How things have changed. Restaurants in 2018 highlight sweetbreads and other off cuts with less frequency, while the same sleepy steak for two from the same celebrity butcher seems to sell just about everywhere.
Sichuan spots have always been outliers in this regard, dishing out tripe and tongue long before and after they’d fallen in and out of vogue. What makes MáLà Project a particularly compelling way to enjoy these cuts is that portions are tiny; diners build dry pots out of five or so items per person from a selection of nearly 70 ingredients.
So a bet on tendon (as gelatinous as a gummy bear), lamb stomach (packing the barnyard tang of the namesake animal times ten), or artery (all the flavor of a handball shaved over a mandoline) can be hedged with heady chicken thigh, sweet crab sticks, delicate shrimp balls, overcooked pork ribs, or glass noodles.
Keep in mind that the noodles efficiently soak up a lot the chile oil; they will turn the insides of even a sturdy gourmand into a nuclear generator. Another technical point: MáLà’s namesake numbingness is decidedly low level; this is a good thing for those who find the food at, say, Mission Chinese, to feel like a shot of novocaine from the dentist. Others might try New Legend in Chelsea for a more balanced buzz.
The dry pot feels suited to a generation of eaters raised on small plates and dietary restrictions; even a party of two can sample a butcher’s dozen worth of ingredients. And since MáLà lets diners order individual pots, a vegetarian in a larger group can have a proper feast of their own, instead of having to lobby the omnivores at the table for a few orders of greens.
A smart meat-free order would be soft enoki mushrooms, thin-sliced potatoes, chewy rice cakes, crispy lotus root, black wood ear mushrooms (floppy yet firm, like perfectly cooked lasagna sheets), or any other infinite combination of vegetables coated in insane quantities of chile.
Seek relief with Sixpoint Bengali ale, redolent of rose, or a can of “Milk Drink,” a sweet blend of condensed milk and milk powder equipped with a bendable plastic straw. Though really, neither quells the pain with any type of efficiency. The desserts, from the black sesame jelly to the sweet fried pumpkin cake, do a better job at cooling off one’s insides.
Though guests would be forgiven for skipping the sweets and simply doubling down on that deli thin eye round of beef ($6). MáLà might not be the city’s best Sichuan restaurant, but it certainly holds a place alongside, say, Cote or Takashi in threatening to unseat the pricey and average supremacy of the New York steakhouse.