Mala Tang, Virginia Square, VA

It was July 4th, and getting late into the day. Fireworks weren’t in the plans, but we were getting hungry, and quickly running out of options.

At 8:30 PM, Washington Blvd. was more deserted than I’d ever seen it, with almost no cars driving on either side of the road as far as the eye could see – everyone was already at the fireworks, and the Arlington roads looked like they were in a ghost town.

Mala Tang is the new Sichuan Hot Pot restaurant near the Virginia Square Metro station, owned by the same folks who own Uncle Liu’s and Hong Kong Palace. Liu Chaosheng has gotten a fair amount of press as being a great chef (and I certainly suspect that Hong Kong Palace is (or was) serving the best Sichuan food in northern Virginia (although I haven’t been to China Star in quite awhile now)).

But a great chef can only be in one place at a time, and Mala Tang is a pretty big, potentially pretty busy, restaurant. However, on this evening, it was nearly empty, and the extremely friendly staff repeatedly assured us that it was okay to dine this late – the kitchen would be staying open anyway for any late carryout orders that come in.

I had a Kirin Ichiban ($7.50, 22 ounces), but ended up coveting my friend’s 2010 Brancott Sauvignon Blanc ($7.50) from New Zealand – yet another example confirming my theory that if you’re navigating an unfamiliar wine list, go with a cheap Sauvignon Blanc, regardless of where it’s from.

We were starving, and over-ordered in a big way – if you’re going with the hot pot dishes here, it really isn’t necessary to order appetizers. But we did anyway, and went with two of my Szechuan standards for evaluating a restaurant: Dan Dan Noodles ($7.00) and Mapo Tofu ($8). Having had the Mapo Tofu at Hong Kong Palace, I was shocked that this version was about as bad as any I’ve ever tried, the “tender tofu” being quite firm, and the “savory red sauce” and “ground pork” having a faint resemblance to – I hate to say it – canned sauce, even though it wasn’t. The noodles, with minced pork, Sichuan pepper, house-made soy sauce, and red chili oil were better, but not nearly as good as the ones I recently had at China Canteen in Rockville. I told my friend in advance that both these dishes would be a fine introduction to Sichuan cooking, and that since this restaurant was owned by Hong Kong Palace, they’d be a safe bet; I was wrong. We ended up taking half the appetizers home, and they were no better for lunch the next day.

So I advise steering clear of the appetizers here, and going straight for the hot pot. Mala Tang may have the single most confusing menu I’ve ever seen at any restaurant. For me to be perplexed by a menu takes some doing, but I was flipping back-and-forth, trying to figure out what in the hell this thing was telling me to do. Fortunately, our kindly server stepped in and guided us through the ordering process (really, Mala Tang, get a consultant to work on your menu – please trust me on this).

When you order the hot pot here, you choose between two broths: Traditional ($3, chicken-based) or Vegetarian (also $3). Then you can take your pick from three sections: Starches, Proteins, and Vegetables, with each item brought out (to throw into the hot pot) at a separate cost. It can add up, so just be mindful of the running total of things you order. In my opinion, it would be best to order everything at once and get it cooking, so the broth can thicken and become more complex as it cooks down. The individual items that come out to the table look like enormous portions, but they shrink down extremely quickly and dramatically, and you may be left with less food than you think.

With our traditional broth, we ordered Milk Marinated Beef ($13), but were unfortunately brought the Wine Marinated Beef by mistake. Sure, we could have sent it back, but we were already late diners, and I didn’t want to take the chance that the food would be discarded, so it was fine. But it wasn’t fine, because even as the plate was a couple feet in front of me, I could smell just how cheap in quality this wine was – they say you should never cook with a wine that you wouldn’t drink, and I can assure you this was a fine example of that. Fortunately, the odor quickly dissipated once it started dispersing in the boiling liquid.

Along with the beef, we got King Mushroom ($6.00) and Bok Choy ($4.00), both of which were enormous looking portions (but again, they shrank down by a lot). With only these three toppings, the soup itself cost $29 – really, a reasonable price for both the quantity of food, and also for the fun experience itself. You won’t leave hungry if you order one protein and two vegetables, but you may want to add a couple of things if you don’t get appetizers – the incremental cost is pretty small.

The soup itself is as good as you want to make it – it comes with a few seasoning agents, and depending on what types of ingredients you order, you can make it very neutral or very assertive. Play around with it, have fun with it, and enjoy it – it’s a nice dining experience. Ordering a starch will help to thicken the broth.

At 9:43 PM the fireworks were in full gear, we were the last diners in the restaurant, and we left full and happy after thanking our gracious server. I’m not going to sit here and tell you this is great food, but it’s fun food, it’s healthy food, and it’s surely worth a try.

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