Interactive, fun, and tasty describe my recent trip to Mala Tang for some hot-pot love. If you don’t like the idea of cooking your own food or taking your time eating it, Mala Tang is not the place for you. The restaurant’s real charm is in allowing its diners to catch up with their dining companions in a casual setting while eating at their own pace and getting creative with their food. The food is simple, yet good, and didn’t leave me feeling like I had to unbutton my pants and take a nap afterward.
The menu and concept are a bit overwhelming at first, especially if you’re not familiar with the hot-pot experience. In fact, the one complaint I have about the whole meal was the lack of guidance from the waitstaff about the cooking process and how to best use the condiments bar, consisting of various spices, oils, garlic, and peppers, among other items. Perhaps it was the size of our group that made it difficult to instruct us. Luckily, we had a few hot-pot veterans at our table to walk us though the process.
Now I share my hard-earned knowledge with you. So, let’s get started. The menu offers hot and cold appetizers like dumplings, noodles, and pork buns; hot-pot entrées that come with a protein and a vegetable medley; or, diners can choose proteins and vegetables à la carte.
Each person gets a hot-pot and a bowl of rice. First, choose one of two types of cooking liquids — mild or Mala. Mala is actually the combination of Sichuan pepper ("Ma"), which leaves a tingling sensation on the tongue, and a chile ("La"), which brings intense heat and whose name translates to "facing heaven." I recommend going with the mild broth so you can customize it to your liking using items from the condiments bar. Next, choose one or more proteins. We tried two types of beef (N.Y. strip and sirloin), lamb, pork, chicken, prawns, and lobster balls. For vegetables, we chose broccoli, mushrooms, and bok choy. All were very good quality.
I recommend taking a trip over to the condiments bar before dropping any food into the hot-pot. In one bowl, pick out a few items to spice up the cooking broth. I grabbed some aromatics like garlic and ginger. I also scooped up some of the Mala powder (aka "numbing powder"). In a separate bowl, I prepared what I like to call my post-cooking dipping sauce. It contained a little sesame oil, soy sauce, scallions, and hoisin. Don’t be afraid to try different combinations or ask your server for suggestions. As for cooking times, items like broccoli and the lobster balls should be some of the first items you drop into your hot-pot, as they take the longest to cook. Shrimp takes the least amount of time, for example.
Overall, my first and only trip to Mala Tang was a solid experience, despite the fact that I may have used too much Mala powder and had to take a timeout to cool down my tongue and lips. Perils of the trade.