When Malai first opened in Dallas, it was a slow burn. Just over 10 years ago, Dallas, along with Malai’s owners Braden and Yasmin Wages, were in need of something new. The husband-wife duo wanted to bring Vietnamese and Thai cuisine to a full-service restaurant setting. But instead of making their concept a “fusion” restaurant, they wanted to take a modernized approach. Today, Malai remains a staple in West Village, though the early days weren’t smooth.
For Yasmin, it was important that the couple’s concept respect the culture they were representing. Yasmin is a first-generation American whose family has roots in India and Tanzania. Much of Malai’s food items are inspired by her family’s frequent travels.
“My dad loves seafood,” Yasmin says. “We spent one summer in Portugal, and they have amazing seafood. One time, my dad was eating these sardines, and he was like, ‘You guys have to eat the sardines. These are the greatest things I've ever eaten.’ So I tried them, and they were legitimately some of the best sardines I've ever had, unlike anything you would think of as a sardine. I attribute that trip to really changing my perception of what food was, and how you can enjoy it. Food teaches you about the culture of a country. It teaches you about the culture of people.”
When Yasmin and her family arrived in Weatherford in the '80s, her parents purchased a tiny motel. They had no prior hotel experience — her dad was an electrical engineer by trade and her mother had gone to secretarial school. Through the help of friends in their community, they were able to thrive in the business. Eventually, her parents purchased another hotel and launched a dry cleaning and laundry business.
“For us, it was, you work hard, you spend time with your family, and you prioritize those two things,” Yasmin says. “My dad was always home for dinner, and if he had to go back to work after dinner, he would. Sometimes, we'd go to the cleaners and help tag clothes, or we'd go to the inn and help with laundry. We'd help fold sheets, or help make beds, or help clean the bathrooms. It was very much a family business.”
Yasmin would later study at Cornell University in upstate New York, then move to California right after college. In California, she and Braden worked for a hospitality company that represented restaurants in Napa, Orange County and Los Angeles. The two always wanted to open a concept of their own, but felt that California wasn’t conducive for small business. The company they worked for eventually transferred them to Dallas in 2009, and when they weren’t working, they would plan their concept.
Although returning to Texas was always a goal for them, they did miss the cuisine of California, specifically the Southeast Asian cuisine. They often found themselves cooking it at home and playing with all different types of flavors. At the time, many of the Vietnamese and Thai places were small, hole-in-the-wall shops, and they felt Dallas was in need of a sit-down concept for this type of food.
“One day at Braden's work, one of their regulars had come in, and struck up a conversation with him and said, ‘What do you think is the next big restaurant idea?’ And he said, 'That's not a question I can answer right now. but I'll sit on it,’” Yasmin recalls. "Later that week, we were having lunch at a pho place, and we're sitting there over a bowl of pho, and we started stewing on the idea. We figured this is a cuisine that could be raised up. We could have great service, a great cocktail list and amazing wine lists to go with it. And we came up with Malai. It's the food that we love to eat. It's the food that we crave, and we haven't altered the food at all. We are 100% inspired by tradition.”
On Malai’s menu are pho, drunk noodle dishes and many items you may expect to find in a Thai or Vietnamese restaurant. All of the stocks are made in-house daily, as are the curries. One of Yasmin’s favorite dishes is the Icelandic cod with red curry.
“Our seafood program is another thing we're really proud of,” Yasmin says. “We’re really committed to getting fresh seafood. We don’t have a freezer here. The only freezer we have in the restaurant is a little ice cream freezer, and that’s the same for all of our locations. We’ve never had a freezer or a microwave, and we never will.”
To date, Malai is open in four locations: the flagship West Village location, Fort Worth, Southlake and Preston Center. The latter opened about a year ago. While it has proven to be a favorite among Dallasites, Yasmin remembers the opening of the flagship as a slow start.
When the restaurant was under construction, Yasmin remembers people telling her and Braden that they couldn’t wait to try it and how excited they were for a full-service Thai and Vietnamese fusion concept.
“Sure enough, we opened, and it was like, crickets,” Yasmin says. “It would be Friday night, and we'd be pretty dead. We would go to other side of West Village, where Mi Cocina and Taco Diner were, and there'd be so many people over there. The restaurants would all have a wait, so then we would start sending our staff with little drink coupons, and we’d give them coupons while they waited in line.”
Business eventually grew gradually and steadily, though there were a few months in which they fell behind on rent payments. The duo tried to work things out with the landlord, who himself is a fan of the restaurant, and while they were fortunate enough to remain in their spot, Yasmin recalls the landlord feeling skeptical about its longevity.
“I remember the landlord looked at us and said, ‘Well, maybe this just isn't a concept that has legs to grow,’” Yasmin says. “I think that was the one that hurt the most. He had no faith in us, but he eats there. Like he would come in, and he would dine there, and he liked the food. So for for me, it was just him just blatantly being like, ‘Well, I guess this is just what this food can do. The buck stops here, this is as high as it can get.’”
Now, it’s a rare night that Malai isn’t packed. While its assimilation into Dallas’ nightlife and dining scene was slow, it has been one of the longest-lasting restaurants in West Village, remaining in the neighborhood even after mainstays like Mi Cocina and Taco Diner have closed.
Yasmin credits her success to the community around her, as well as the employees, many of whom have been with her since the restaurant’s beginnings.
“We used to train in the basement of what used to be the social house, on the other side of West Village,” Yasmin says. The landlord let us use that space while we were under construction to do all of our training. ... We would be nowhere without everyone who works for Malai. Our success is purely due to the people who work for us.”
Malai Kitchen, Various Locations. Open 11 a.m. – 10 p.m. daily.