The first time I was handed a bowl of dan dan noodles, it was on the side of the road under the hot sun in Chengdu, China. I was told there were two components to Sichuanese food: “ma,” the numbing of the tongue caused by Sichuan peppercorns, and “la,” the spicy, burning sensation that most of us are familiar with. Ever since I left the birthplace of Sichuan food, I have always craved the exciting juxtaposition of the two sensations. Naturally, I was thrilled when I found out that there were not one, but two Sichuan restaurants inside the Houston loop where I could satisfy my spicy Chinese food cravings without making the lengthy drive out to Chinatown. During my recent visit to Cooking Girl, I sought out the classic dishes in order to adequately compare the two establishments.
315 Fairview St. 77006
Price range: $$
Mapo tofu, $8.99
Soft and tender tofu in spicy red chili and bean sauce
Super Triple Cubic Beef! $12.99
Crispy beef cubes with peanuts and celery topped with cracked red pepper
Upon entering Mala and Cooking Girl, you experience two very different vibes. Mala has a very swanky, upscale feel, with sleek decor, dim lights and modern furniture. In contrast, Cooking Girl has a much more traditional vibe, with Chinese paintings on the walls and waitresses firing off rapid small talk in Mandarin. In terms of service, Mala already has a Chinatown location and is in the swing of the restaurant business, making the dining experience proceed quite smoothly. Cooking Girl is a small space, usually resulting in a longer wait, especially as the restaurant tries to get the hang of quickly serving guests. While service at Cooking Girl is relatively slower, you do get a complimentary dish of seasoned crackers (which look suspiciously like Cheez-Its) to munch on while you wait.
The menu at Cooking Girl is pretty small, with a focus on both dishes “classic” to the Sichuan province as well as some house specialties. Mala’s menu is much larger, with many more different types of appetizers, meat and vegetables to choose from. For appetizers, dan dan noodles is a classic to try at both restaurants — a simple bowl of noodles topped with minced pork, scallions, chopped peanuts and some vegetables. Mala and Cooking Girl tie on this traditional dish, doing a great job of leaving me scrambling for water after each bite. Each chopstick-full of long, chewy noodles, seasoned pork and spicy chili sauce fueled both the tears and sweat streaming down my face from the spice, as well as the desire to continue shoveling the delicious noodles into my mouth.
Mapo tofu, a dish that is fundamental to Sichuanese cuisine, was a different story. Though slight variations exist, the basic dish consists of soft cubes of tofu resting in a bright red spicy chili and bean sauce. It is a dish that is not hard to do well, but it is difficult to perfect it. Cooking Girl won me over with its mapo tofu. With soft and silky cubes of tofu that melt upon hitting your tongue, an addictively flaming hot chili bean sauce and freshly chopped scallions sprinkled on top, I was surprised by how much my meat-loving friends and I gulped down the tofu. The secret is in the sauce — while Mala’s mapo tofu sauce is ever-so-slightly greasy, leaving me feeling like I dunked my lips in a tasty bowl of Vaseline, Cooking Girl’s sauce was like a heated blanket on a winter’s evening. I was physically left with a sense of warmth and the comfort of home-cooked food after this dish.
Other “classic” dishes, such as the dry-fried green string beans, were delicious at both restaurants. While Mala flavors its green beans with a bit more garlic flavor, something I personally love, Cooking Girl fries their green beans just a tad longer to create a more interesting juxtaposition of texture. Meat dishes are pretty popular at both restaurants — the spicy fried chicken pieces dish is a popular choice at Mala, and while Cooking Girl parallels that offering, they also have a “special” that was recommended by the waitress: A very aptly named “Super Triple Cubic Beef!” (exclamation mark included) not only had crispy beef cubes, but also pieces of sauteed peanuts and celery, which were a welcome addition to the mass of dried, cracked red peppers and meat.
While both Mala Sichuan and Cooking Girl have their individual merits, I will certainly recommend Cooking Girl over Mala when I am craving dishes with a home-cooked flair. With Cooking Girl’s smaller menu, the dining experience proved that they can focus on being excellent at each dish that they prepare. While it’s true that the choice is between two great restaurants, Cooking Girl provides a unique dining experience that fills both the stomach and the soul.