You’ve heard me say this time and time again here on the blog. The Dallas food and culinary scene is truly like the Hunger Games. No pun intended. One minute a restaurant is here. The next minute you hear the gong of death known as the Facebook announcement of their closure by Dallas Food Nerd (DFN) or another local food blog. It’s a jungle out there.
As my knowledge and love of food grows with each passing bite, I appreciate the restaurants who survive the test of time or rather the various tastes of Dallas foodies. I remember the first time I ever ate at Malai Thai & Vietnamese Kitchen. It was in the summer of 2011, right after they opened. I’ve eaten there several times since then, but that doesn’t mean I was any less enthused when they invited Dallas Food Nerd to sample their menu.
Located in the heart of West Village in the ever popular Uptown district, Malai Kitchen showcases a modern side of Southeast Asian cuisine. Restaurant owners/husband-and-wife team Braden and Yasmin Wages were inspired by their travels through Thailand and Vietnam and wanted to provide that experience in Dallas. And for more than four years, they’ve been doing just that.
Like many restaurants in the Uptown area, Malai offers a happy hour menu. From 4 – 7 p.m., Monday through Friday and all day Sunday, guests can unwind with happy hour bites and discounted cocktails. And like their food menu, their cocktails have hints of Asian spices and ingredients from Thai basil to Kaffir leaves and fruity hints of citrus. They have recently added beer flights to their menu, allowing patrons to sample all three of their house-brewed beers in one sitting. Flights are $8 and include a five-ounce pour of Bia Hoi (light Vietnamese lager), Thai-P-A (medium bodied and brewed with Thai herbs) and the Thai 1 on seasonal rotator (this month’s rotator is a Belgian Tripel).
I sipped on a Lemongrazz Fizz made, but the Vietnamese Lemonade looked like a very refreshing way to end the work day.
To keep the hunger pains at a minimum and begin our journey into Asian, we nibbled on several appetizers: the Malai Favorite Sampler and Jumbo Shrimp with a mango salad. The sampler is a great choice that lives up to its name, giving diners a taste of everything – grilled pork & chicken skewers, imperial rolls, spring rolls and Vietnamese meatballs. But the real star of the appetizers has to be the jumbo shrimp. This dish. Oh this dish. My taste buds were simply not prepared for the intense, fresh and bright flavors of the seafood and salad combo.
After I recovered from appetizer, we proceeded to main course. I chose the Red Curry Georges Bank Cod, and my dining companion opted for the Massaman Braised Lamb Shank. Now if you remember nothing more from this review, remember this important detail: order from the left side of the entree section on the dinner menu under “Specialties.” The right side of the menu offers more of the classic Asian entrees such as fried rice, Pad Thai, Lemongrass chicken and other classic dishes that one might find at a Thai-Vietnamese restaurants. There is absolutely nothing wrong with these items. I ate several of them during my first view visits to the restaurant. But the specialties are appropriately named and truly highlight the culinary abilities and vision of the Wages.
My cod was perfectly cooked, and their curry made from house-made coconut milk was velvety and rich. Why use the canned items when you can make your coconut milk from scratch? With each bite of fish, curry and jasmine rice, I was transported to some of the scenes found in the pictures they have on display throughout the restaurants. How silly I felt for only eating the right side of the menu all this time.
And by the silence of my dining companion and the small taste he offered me, I knew the lamb shank evoked a similar experience for him too.
My day was complete after that meal. What else could I possibly need? I spoke too soon. For dessert, we shared the Mango Stick Rice Smash. Remember a few sentences ago when I said they make their own coconut milk? Using the remaining coconut as a base, this angelic dessert is layers of spiced rice crispy, sticky rice and mango swimming in a sweat pool of coconut custard.
Good. Lord. Baby Jesus. My life is changed…forever. This dairy-free dessert is a dream. It’s spicy, sweet, crispy and smooth all in one bite. It’s bipolar and will bring everyone that eats it to their knees. People usually have this dramatic explanation when chocolate is involved, but when you’re lactose intolerant, it’s difficult to find a dessert that you can eat.
When I finished the meal, I truly was at a loss for words, which is ironic considering I had to find the words to write this post. After this visit to Malai, I understand why Braden and Yasmin have survived the Dallas scene. It’s simple. They make good food, really good food. They provide a hospitable experience that is warm and inviting. They connect with their patrons. They stay true to their vision. They encourage their diners to explore food that may be outside their comfort zone.
And this is why they have not only survived, they thrive. I wish them the best. And may the odds be ever in your favor.
(Disclaimer: I was provided with a complimentary meal, and all thoughts are my own.)