Mala Tang, the newly opened Sichuan hot-pot restaurant in Arlington, can have a bit of a learning curve for first-time diners.
Think of “hot pot” as a Sichuan fondue, but with boiling broth in place of cheese and raw meats instead of bread cubes. While the concept isn’t new to Washington, it still requires some lessons for much of Mala Tang’s clientele.
Liu Chaosheng, the restaurant’s chef and owner, has been eating hot pot since he was a boy in Chengdu, China, and has served it in America for several years at his other restaurants, Hong Kong Palace and Uncle Liu’s Hot Pot. Hoping to reach a wider audience without watering down the concept, Liu has partnered with two Washington restaurant-industry veterans, brothers Tomer and Oren Molovinsky—the latter is a managing partner of the company that owns Harry’s Tap Room and was a manager at Mie N Yu—at Mala Tang.
Since a soft opening last week, Mala Tang’s servers have been explaining the hot-pot process to diners. There are choices for broth (beef-based or vegetarian, hot or mild) and protein: Thin-sliced New York Strip steak ($13 for lunch, $21 for dinner) and wine-marinated beef ($13) are popular, and there are also poultry and seafood options. Vegetable choices include broccoli ($5), lotus root ($6), and enoki mushrooms ($6), and although white rice is included, you can also order house-made noodles ($5) or dumplings ($5 for pork and vegetable, $6 for beef).
Staff at Mala Tang are happy to recommend how best to use the condiments that come with each hot pot—hot chili peppers, spicy bean paste, a house-made barbecue-style sauce, and house-made soy sauce—that vary in heat level. Diners can combine the first three into a larger bowl of the soy.
Mala Tang features individualized hot pots, something that may come as a surprise to those that have been to Liu’s other restaurants, where tables share one or two communal pots.
“That seemed like a better fit for an American audience,” says general manager Tomer Molivinsky, “because the idea of everyone cooking food all together isn’t part of American culture.”
The decor is sparse: dark wood tabletops and counters are flanked by deep-red walls and the occasional carved wall hanging. The highlight of the dining room is a photo mural depicting a market street in Chengdu, the owner’s inspiration for both the hot pot and the xiao chi, or street-food dishes. The latter—including spicy dan dan noodles ($7), mapo tofu ($8), mung-bean noodles ($6), and scallion pancake ($4)—are also available for lunch at the counter opposite the restaurant’s dining room. Liu hopes the street snacks, as well as a quick version of hot pot, will draw a lunch crowd from the offices in the same building.
A note to office workers who plan to sit down for lunch: the pot of broth, chile oil, and spices can get a little messy. “I wouldn’t wear all white the first time,” says Tomer.
Mala Tang, 3434 Washington Blvd., Arlington; 703-243-2381; mala-tang.com. Open Monday through Thursday, 11 to 10, Friday and Saturday 11 to 11. Brunch, with a menu of street snacks, is coming soon.
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