Seasoned restaurant managers and graduates of the Cornell University School of Hotel Administration, husband-and-wife team Braden and Yasmin Wages know how to open and sustain a successful restaurant. They’ve done it for three and a half years at Malai Kitchen in Dallas.
Inspired by the couple’s extensive travel throughout Thailand and Vietnam, Malai Kitchen’s menu revolves around Southeast Asian cuisine, the couple’s favorite cuisine, although Yasmin was born in India and raised in the Lone Star State. At Malai Kitchen, they make everything from scratch, even the coconut milk and curry paste, and they recently applied for a brewpub license to brew and serve their own Vietnamese-style beer. Braden heads up the kitchen while Yasmin works the front of the house. The two say they collaborate on everything, from menu development to beer pairings, décor, and design in the 120-seat, 2,500-square-foot restaurant, which has both indoor and outdoor seating.
“Everything is a discussion; no one voice is stronger than the other,” Yasmin says, admitting she is frequently asked how she does it, in reference to their married and working relationship. “That kind of mentality makes living and working together easy, and outside of being husband and wife, we’re also very good friends. We’re much stronger as a team than we are independently, and that helps us create a stronger environment both at home and at the restaurant.”
In fact, Malai’s mission revolves around an “I care” culture, where everyone helps each other out and supports the common cause. The concept was actually a project in the making for years, as the couple worked for wineries in Napa, California, and later, when Braden worked for the Hillstone Restaurant Group, a Los Angeles–based operator of upscale-casual restaurant brands around the country.
When it opened, Malai Kitchen was one of the only Southeast Asian restaurants in Dallas, and the cuisine has enjoyed growing popularity. “Our concept has been very well-received, and people like our food because of its lightness, and it’s a little healthier than other cuisines,” Braden says. “We decided early on we wanted a global kitchen because we travel a lot, and it just made sense to narrow it down to our favorite cuisine.”
The couple continues to travel regularly for inspiration and ideas. “We make a point of going back to Southeast Asia close to every eight or nine months, for at least a week or two weeks at a time,” says Braden. The couple took an extended trip to Vietnam in January and came back with ideas for a vegetarian-inspired, herbaceous soup. Additionally, they started serving Hoi An at brunch, with noodle cakes, eggs, scallions, soy sauce, and green papaya salsa.
“We get a ton of vegetarians,” Braden adds, noting that Vietnamese cuisine fits this crowd because it’s a more herb- and vegetable-centric diet, as opposed to the protein-centric menus that are typical in American cuisine.
This last trip also introduced them to Bia Hoi, an inexpensive, light beer enjoyed regularly in Southeast Asia during gatherings after work with friends and family, similar to happy hour at restaurants in the States. It was this beer—rarely found in the U.S.—that inspired them to learn how to brew their own at home. Initially, the Wages tried to find someone to brew the beer for them, but it was such a small batch no one wanted the challenge.
“We got our license in March, but had been testing batches since August last year,” says Yasmin. The couple started with three kinds of beer: one in the traditional Bia Hoi style, another that was a more hoppy IPA, and one lightly spiced with galangal. They’ve also experimented with a coconut porter dark beer and a coconut coffee beer, using coconuts from the supply they keep to make coconut milk. Most recently, they added a Belgian white ale with coriander, white pepper, and a touch of curry.
“We want it to be a good beer first and foremost, but have a little hint of our personality,” Braden says, noting they make the beer in a dedicated part of their kitchen using brewing equipment and small, 5-gallon kegs for eight or nine batches of production each week. Think super-small batch, “nano brewery,” he says.
In addition to the beer offering, Malai Kitchen continues its focus on cocktails and wines, which are selected from small wineries throughout the U.S. and around the world.
The last Vietnam trip also motivated Yasmin and Braden to make their own coconut milk in-house, using a special coconut grater and a coconut meat press they purchased in Asia. Now, the restaurant goes through 36 coconuts a day, and the homemade coconut milk requires 50 percent of one full-time employee’s hours to produce. However, the operators say the freshness and flavor of their signature coconut milk make it worth the extra cost and labor.
They use the milk mainly for homemade curry dishes, including one made with lime leaves, galangal, lemon grass, shallots, garlic, coriander, cumin, cilantro, and other herbs.
“We break them all down into a smooth, fragrant paste to avoid the sodium-laced versions you get when you buy them pre-made,” Braden says. That particular curry gets paired with large rice noodles, shrimp, and Chinese watercress. “It’s so refreshing and invigorating, and it really changes people’s perception of curry, which can have some negative connotations for being too rich,” he adds.
Malai Kitchen makes a dedicated effort to keep its offerings fresh, hosting special dinners with guest chefs, adding new items, and coloring the menu with seasonal flavors. “We try to add featured dishes to our menu as often as we can because we get a lot of regulars,” Yasmin says.
In one creative interpretation, the couple bought a banana tree, sliced pieces off the trunk, and made a salad out of the edible bark to resemble a dish common in South Vietnam.
“It’s fun to educate our guests, and people get excited to try new things, so they’re never bored,” she says.
Fortunately, Dallas has a Thai market, which helps provide cuisine-specific ingredients like fresh kaffir lime leaves and galangal to make everything fresh, rather than relying on frozen, shipped product.
“We’re also very passionate about finding the best fish, and we are really conscious about sustainability,” says Yasmin. The couple procure fresh line-caught cod from Atlanta for a red curry pot dish with extra shallots and herbs. In the winter, they focus on heartier Thai dishes versus the light and airy Vietnamese ones, more suitable for summer.
This year, they hope to expand their beer program and streamline the coconut milk-making process. In the meantime, they’ll continue to work, inspire, and grow as a team.