Beyond BYO: Building the Chinatown Wine List

Pét-nat and Peking duck? Off-dry riesling and Sichuan food? These kinds of combinations, ordained among wine nerds, have long come by way of the BYO restaurant. But sommelier Justin Vann is trying to change that by bringing avant-garde beverage programs to Houston's ethnic restaurants, and boosting their businesses in the process.

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For years, members of the wine-loving clan have benefited from the generosity of the BYO restaurant. Sommeliers, restaurant folk, collectors and the simply wine-devoted would pinpoint their favorite international restaurants and suddenly, sundry topnotch German rieslings met fiery fried catfish at a Thai place in Queens, vintage Burgundy found its way to Old Mandarin Islamic in San Francisco’s Outer Sunset and pét-nat spun on lazy Susans at Peach Farm in Boston’s Chinatown. Hell, even Robert Parker has a favorite strip mall Chinese place in Arlington, Virginia, where he’s undoubtedly been taking first growths for decades.

But what if you’ve never experienced the pleasure that is rosé Champagne with crispy Peking duck skin? Or off-dry riesling with peppery Sichuan food? How can everyone discover that same high if there’s no opportunity to have those wines in these restaurants? And at the same time, shouldn’t these restaurants have the chance to benefit from not only from the presence of these wines, but from the financial gains of having them, too?

A couple years ago, Justin Vann left his full-time sommelier gig at Houston’s Oxheart, where he was entirely zeroed in on seeking out unorthodox pairings for chef Justin Yu’s inventive six-course tasting menus. Vann’s the guy who brought oxidized white Jura wines and madeira and sour beers to Houston’s mainstream dining scene. Wanting to expand his reach, he decided to start a restaurant wine consulting company, Public Services—and to open a wine and whiskey bar of the same name. On his way out, chef Yu suggested that small ethnic restaurants in the city might be a good place for Vann start, as they tend to be underserved when it comes to wine and beer. “For me, wine is what I’ve spent most of my life studying, but it’s not just as simple as having wine: It has to be thoughtful,” says Vann. “I think you can tell when you walk into a place if someone took the effort to choose it carefully. The excitement I feel when I see a good wine list with good food—I want to create that for people.”

He took on Banana Leaf, a Malaysian restaurant as a client, as well as Houston’s beloved Mala Sichuan Bistro in Chinatown—a place where he could frequently be found with his head in a bowl of mapo tofu, wishing that there was something there beyond the half-dozen lagers they offered. (He also went hunting for a Pakistani or Indian restaurant that would work with him, but most of the places weren’t down with serving alcohol.)

The young couple who owns Mala Sichuan, Cori Xiong, who grew up in the Sichuan region, and Heng Chen, who’s from the northeast China, met at the University of Texas and opened their Chinatown location in 2011. By the time Vann began working with the couple, Mala Sichuan already had the attention of a huge swath of Houston diners, who would routinely made the trek to Chinatown for classic Sichuan dishes and their huge span of flavors like red oil dumplings, spicy and crispy chicken and live tilapia. Shortly after adding a proper beer and wine program, the sales for the restaurant not only doubled, but increased tenfold—a growth spurt that’s driving Vann to find other restaurants like Mala who have the clientele to support this kind of investment. (His dream is to find a Tex-Mex or “Interior Mexican”—i.e. what Texans call non Tex-Mex Mexican food—restaurant where he could explore the joys of Barolo with, say, fajitas.)

Although the food at Mala Sichuan is very traditional, Xiong recognizes that she and Chen are a new generation of Chinese restaurant owners—their mindset slightly more progressive than generations before. “Most Chinese restaurant owners have a background that’s different than ours, and most people with our background don’t choose to open Chinese restaurants.”

The Chinatown branch of Mala Sichuan was so fantastically popular that Xiong and Heng opened a second location this year on Houston’s restaurant row in the Inner Loop, joining places like Underbelly and Uchi, which have outstanding wine programs. “They’re already an integral part of the restaurant community, and it brings them that much closer to everyone around them by having the sort of beverage program that the Inner Loop demands,” says Vann.

For the new, bigger Inner Loop location, Vann brought on bottles of Champagne, old Vouvray and craft beer on tap—from Jester King‘s beloved sours to wheats from Live Oak Brewing Company. He filled out the rest of the list with wild ales and tart Belgians like Orval, which Vann claims will go with anything because of its malty sweetness, acidity and extreme carbonation. He also brought on several IPAs, like the one from Stone and a couple from Houston brewery Brash, which have supersized hops that can easily stand up to the capsaicin heat prevalent in so much of Mala’s cuisine.

As for wine, there are plenty of wine distributors—and this is true around the country, not just in Houston—who are willing to step in and create wine lists for these independent ethnic restaurants, offering to write and print the actual wine lists if they buy all of their wine from that one distributor. If you’re a restaurant manager who doesn’t know that much about wine, it seems like a pretty solid deal. The thing is, this doesn’t make for very interesting wine selections. “You can get better wines if you buy from more than a couple distributors and just print your own list,” says Vann. “If I can help some of these restaurants buy more intelligently and not rely on a distributor to make their wine list, then I feel good about this.”

Because there isn’t a sommelier on the floor every night, it is important to Vann that the wine list be composed of wines that would go well with every dish on the menu. This means lightly sweet Dragonstone riesling from German producer Johannes Leitz, older bottles of demi-sec Vouvray from Huet, sparkling wines like La Grange Tiphaine’s Rosa Rosé Rosam. “There are a lot of people who ask, ‘Do you have a cabernet by the glass?’ Nope. We have a carbonic gamay by the glass, and that’s it,” says Vann. “Not because we’re trying to be hipsters to Chinese diners, but because we’re trying to stock the list with wines that are only good with the food.”

There is no mention of regions or soil types—instead, Vann is explicit about what the wines will taste like. If a wine is a little sweet, he says so. If it’s very sweet, he says that, too. “I hope the preponderance of sweet, lightly sweet, very sweet on that list sends a message: Try sugar with this food. It’s so perfect—it’s like bacon and maple syrup.”

And for all the deliciously avant-garde beverages that Vann has brought into these restaurants, there remains an honest truth in the cases of Tsingtao, a Chinese beer, stocked in the fridge. “Justin said, this is a Chinese restaurant, so we have to have Chinese beer,” says Xiong. “But it’s also a Texas restaurant, so we have to have St. Arnold’s, too.”

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