Mala Sichuan Bistro is a little restaurant sandwiched between strip mall stores in Houston’s Chinatown. The chef is an unassuming Chinese immigrant who barely speaks English. So it came as quite a surprise last week when he was selected by the James Beard Awards as a finalist in the Best Chef Southwest category. Chinese isn’t exactly what comes to mind when one thinks about southwest cooking.
Then again, Leslie Brenner, editor and founder of The Palate, the Dallas Morning News’ food and travel magazine, says dining patterns in the southwest are definitely changing. The title of her latest cover story reads “Dallas’s New Wave of Chinese Regional Dining is Sizzling Hot.” In it, she describes what’s been an almost overnight explosion of Shanghai-nese Taiwanese and Cantonese dining options in the unassuming suburbs of North Texas.
“It’s pretty extraordinary, at a time when, in Dallas, the western-style chef-driven dining scene has been lackluster at best, in our northern suburbs, in Collin County especially,” Brenner says.
All this change, she says, has happened in just the past two years. In her research, Brenner discovered that the reason behind this culinary movement is a parallel demographic boom in the state’s Asian population.
“I spoke with our state demographer and he talked to me about the dramatic growth in the Asian community and it has really shown up extraordinarily in North Texas,” Brenner says. “What he explained to me is that what happens is when people immigrate they can sponsor family members. And so if one person comes maybe they sponsor two or three family members and in the ensuing years obviously that becomes sort of an exponential growth in population.”
Brenner says the resulting family-run restaurants create food that stays true to their regional roots. Additionally, she says much of the cuisine blends well into the traditional Texas food culture.
“You might find restaurants specializing in bowls of wonderful beef noodle soup – it’s like braised beef with all these wonderful spices and you know very aromatic with super tender beef,” Brenner says. “If you like brisket and you want to try something interesting in the world of regional Chinese, Taiwanese [food] is your thing.”
The quantity of these restaurants in the northern Dallas suburbs is turning parts of Collin County into one of the most exciting dining areas in North Texas according to Brenner. Because there are so many options, it’s likely that people will stumble into any one of them and find a terrific dining experience.
“The quality is generally really high,” Brenner says. “These places pop up and you could just wander in and discover something really fun and great.”
Written by Morgan O’Hanlon.