Five months after they opened, business went off the face of a cliff. The decline was a gut-punch surprise for owners Braden and Yasmin Wages. Malai Kitchen was their first restaurant, and good feedback met them right out of the gate. They’d traveled the world, enriched bowls of lip-smacking curries with, say, the electric pop of kaffir lime, but suddenly, the honeymoon was over. They ate ramen, the kind you buy with couch-cushion change.
“We didn’t know if it was going to grow from there or keep declining,” Braden remembers. “Thanks to loans and contracts, failure was shockingly not an option. We fought through it ... if we failed, we’d be in a van down by the river.”
Stretched thin, the Wages team brought in a trusted consultant. It was then that he noticed the walls: They were painted green. The color green, the Wages’ consultant said, was a serious appetite suppressant.
That night, Braden and Yasmin Wages pulled an all-nighter: They painted every slice of wall a more stomach-growling tan. Whether it was the new, calming color that unlocked hunger in Dallasites' bellies or (probably more likely) that they kicked off a brunch service, business ticked up and up.
About six years later, one of the great happy-hour joys in the city is a plate of pork meatballs — garlicky, bedazzled with green onions and smash-flattened into a grill until the flames char the edges — eaten with gusto at the Malai Kitchen bar. Wrap a meatball disc in Thai basil and fresh butter lettuce, dip endlessly in a sour-sweet sauce, and it’ll clear your mind of troubles like a fire burns through laundry lint. A brush of caramel lets the grill flame leave char marks on the pork disc.
Unclenching from lunch traffic happens quickly when a banh mi — with crackling-fresh bread — and fried tofu lands in front of you.
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The Wages are expert adapters. This summer, the couple spent time in Malaysia for the first time. A curry with duck blow-torched their socks off, so they added it to the menu. An order of skewered chicken may look the same, but their Malaysian excursion inspired them to zap the dish with coriander, cumin and a kaffir lime relish. It’s sharp and smart happy-hour food.
“We definitely still look at ourselves as a new restaurant,” Braden says. “We don’t drive for the flash-in-the-pan stuff.”
During the holidays, when your mind can feel like it’s going through the public-facing shredder that annihilated the Banksy painting, a home-cooked meal tossed in the inspiration of food far, far away from here is a balm. Six years in, it’s more than that. It’s a comfort.
Malai Kitchen, 3699 McKinney Ave. (Uptown)