If you go out to eat enough, eventually you might experience restaurant deja vu. This isn’t the cute sort of phenomenon that could inspire Drew Barrymore-Adam Sandler spin-off movies. It’s a strange sensation that happens when you’re mid-bite into a $23 entree, listening to frustratingly light jazz, and deciding when it’s appropriate to interrupt dinner and bust out pictures of your niece. Give it a second, and you’ll realize you may or may not have had this same experience four times in the past year.
Málà Project is not a place where this will ever happen to you. Instead, you could eat here three times in the same week, with three very different people, and have three different dinners without ever feeling like you’ve done it all before.
You should come to this Chinese restaurant in the East Village planning to share everything, starting with the appetizers - like some great dan dan noodles, or a garlic eggplant dish we can’t leave here without ordering. The main event, though, is the dry pot, involving customizable combinations of ingredients cooked in mala sauce (a spicy oil with Szechuan peppercorns and chili peppers, among many other things).
The menu recommends between eight and ten items for two people - and half the fun is choosing what you want in your bowl. There are roughly 70 things you could add in, ranging from tripe to king oyster mushrooms to cheese-filled fish cakes, and you can also choose how spicy you want it to be. So between the spice levels and different ingredients, there are endless bowls you could come up with. (Actually, not endless - we calculated them all, and got 1.5868181e+12 different versions of ten-item bowls to try, including one that just has baby corn and nine types of pig meat.) Whatever you choose, it will be cooked perfectly, and you’ll probably leave thinking about the combination you want to try next time, and whether or not shrimp balls and pork belly should star in their own buddy cop film. Just keep in mind that those $3-to-$6-per-item prices start to add up, so before you know it, you could be eating a $50 bowl.
Even though Málà Project is usually busy, there are typically same-day reservations available, and walk-in waits are around 30 minutes at the most. When you go, the long, brick-walled space will probably be full of dates splitting bottles of wine, and groups lounging around circular tables as if they all just got notified about rent stabilization in their apartments. Everything comes out pretty quickly, and once you have your food, the staff sort of just leaves you alone. This is a great thing if you’re not in a rush, but if you’ve got somewhere to be, you might have to start doing experimental performance art to get someone’s attention.
One dinner at Málà Project could involve bacon fried rice and a dry pot with broth-filled beef balls, bok choy, and lotus root, while another dinner could start with a dry pot of tofu skin, four different kinds of mushrooms, and frog, and end with fried pumpkin cakes for dessert. All that means is that you should keep coming back to Málà Project for however long it takes until you start getting restaurant deja vu. Which would pretty much take forever.
You need to eat this. It’s a stack of soft eggplant topped with minced garlic, in a bowl that’s about half-full of garlicky oil.
If you’re getting two appetizers, these noodles should be the second. They’re topped with ground pork and bok choy, and there’s enough spicy oil to cover the noodles fully, so expect a slight mouth-numbing effect.
Another appetizer we like: chewy pieces of jellyfish mixed with slices of crunchy turnip and served in a cold, citrus-y sauce.
Despite the name, this chicken (served cold in a semi-spicy oil) isn’t particularly mouthwatering. It’s not bad, it’s just not as flavorful as advertised.
This fried rice is made with Chinese bacon, scrambled eggs, and peas. Almost every bite will have a piece of chili pepper, and as long as you’re prepared for that, you’ll like this.
For dry pot, the menu recommends 8-10 items for two people, and 12+ for four people. Those estimates are a little over the portion size you probably need, but exactly the portion size you’ll want. Once you start choosing ingredients, it’ll be hard to stop. We particularly like the soup-filled beef balls, chewy tofu skin, rice cakes, lotus root, and shrimp balls. You can add white or purple rice on the side for two dollars, but on at least one of your visits, try glass noodles in the dry pot itself - they soak up all the spices and generally make everything more delicious.
Little fried dough cakes filled with pumpkin paste. They’re crispy on the outside and squishy on the inside, and an ideal way to end your meal.