Ma LaLa Chinese Is Spicing Things Up
Meet the restaurant bringing Sichuan style to Astoria’s Chinese food repertoire
Undoubtedly, Astoria has long been home to great cuisine from many different culinary traditions around the world. Chinese food, however, has long lacked diversity here. Though stellar American Chinese takeout options have been a mainstay, there have rarely been establishments offering food in other Chinese cooking traditions, particularly more traditional ones formed outside of the U.S. Thankfully, Ma LaLa Chinese presents a new Astorian alternative. Opened in 2019, Ma LaLa has established itself as an acclaimed spot for Chinese food in Astoria, focusing on Sichuan cuisine, a style of Chinese cuisine originating from the Sichuan Province.
Sichuan food is famously spicy, and Ma LaLa presents no exception to that tradition. Classics like mapo tofu and Kung Pao chicken present complex flavor profiles and undeniable enjoyment. But the most prominent classic is displayed in the restaurant’s name: Mala gan guo (麻辣 干锅), also known as Sichuan dry pot.
To understand Mala gan guo, we should first understand etymology. The ma (麻) essentially means “numbness,” and in this cuisine, refers to a particular sensation caused by the particular type of spice prevalent in Mala seasoning and in Sichuan cuisine globally: the Sichuan peppercorn. This peppercorn can come in many colors; at Ma LaLa, it often looks dark and singed, and a bite of it may cause explosive results. It’s not just spicy; it specifically causes a numbing sensation almost akin to a strong mint, often causing salivation and, of course, a desire for more.
La (辣) in this case means hotness or spice, and is also a character that can refer to a type of ruthlessness or evil (“薑還是老的辣”, or jiāng háishì lǎode là, is a saying that essentially says an older person is capable of more treachery due to experience). And gan guo (干锅) combines the terms for “dry” and “pot,” creating “dry pot.” Those familiar with hot pot can understand dry pot as a similar concept, but without soup; though, for a similar soupy experience of this dish, one can choose Mala dry pot’s hot pot sister, Mala tang, from the menu.
One of either Mala dry pot or Mala tang (or both, if dealing with numerous adventurous eaters) is an essential choice when eating at Ma LaLa for the first (or fiftieth) time. Once you choose a Mala dry or hot pot, you can choose from a plethora of options to put in the pot, from chicken wings to quail eggs to lotus roots, and then spice levels. Your options will be cooked in oil and Mala seasonings, including peppercorns, chili peppers, ginger, garlic, and more, then brought to you in a large serving, waiting to be devoured by worthy stomachs.