Mala Tang, Virginia Square

Following goodeats’ recommendation about Chinese dining on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, I wanted to remind Christmas diners that Mala Tang is open until 10 PM tonight (I called and verified this, although don’t be surprised if they close a bit early).

Last night, on Christmas Eve, I got delivery from GrubHub (an unappetizing name, but a service I really like), and it came right when they said it would – in less than one hour. I like GrubHub because you can order everything online, including putting the tip on the credit card, all without even speaking to a live person if you’re inclined not to. For me, the ability to put a tip on the credit card is an asset because it minimizes “door time” when there’s inclement weather.

Early on, Mala Tang got typecast in my mind as “Szechuan Hot Pot,” but it really is so much more than that. Witness:

Salt And Pepper Jumbo Shrimp ($14.95) – Judiciously battered and wok-fried, this would, of course, work better as a dine-in order, but if you know in advance that the batter will lose a bit in the delivery process, you won’t be disappointed at all. A wonderful dish, scattered here and there with bits of peppers, tiny diced bits of vegetables, and served on a small amount of finely stripped iceberg lettuce (which I actually enjoy when it has marinated and warmed). This comes with steamed rice, but that’s best reserved for the next course (unless, of course, you want to mix everything together):

Chengdu Mouth-Watering Marinated Chicken ($7.95) – Oh my goodness, get this! I couldn’t find it on Mala Tang’s website, but it’s on GrubHub’s. In general, I don’t love poultry dishes served at room temperature, but this was a huge exception. I suspect in the restaurant, this is served at room temperature, or perhaps a few degrees warmer, maybe at 80 degrees; after the delivery, it had chilled to perhaps 65, so I zapped it for 20 seconds in the microwave (lid on), and that was just enough to take the chill off. Now, as for the dish: I don’t see how they can serve this for $7.95 – it’s an appetizer, but it’s got to be the equivalent of half a chicken, or close to it – and somehow, it seemed like it was all dark meat even though the large, thin slices would indicate breast meat. Whatever it was, this was a *great* dish – a large portion of uniformly sliced chicken, seemingly an impossible task – positively bathing in a thin, Chengdu red chili sauce with a few scallions, some celery-like root (after the marination, sometimes it’s difficult to tell exactly what the vegetables are). For me, I got the perfect amount of sauce when I dumped my white rice into a bowl, and used a fork to flip the chicken (and vegetables) over the side of the tray – you’ll get probably 25% of the sauce if you use this method; any more than that, and it’s dine at your own risk. But regardless of whether or not you’re a chili-head, you’ll be delighted at this wonderful dish, doubly so when you blink and realize that it only set you back $7.95.

I was so happy with both of these dishes that I’m going to explore the Chengdu and Szechuan items on Mala Tang’s menu in more depth. Their hot pot is fine, it’s fun, it’s a wonderful date dish for two, but this is where the heart of the restaurant lies. If you have an inkling for Chinese tonight in Northern Virginia, consider going through GrubHub and getting both of these items from Mala Tang – no matter whatever else you order, get both of these.

I was so happy with both of these dishes that I just ordered them again, along with some further Chengdu and Szechuan explorations. All in the name of strict journalistic professionalism, of course. You know, just to make sure things are consistent.

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