Historically, Guizhou is one of China’s most overlooked provinces. The landlocked location in central China is sandwiched between the famous spice havens of Sichuan and Chongqing to the north and Hunan to the East, and tucked behind the tourist destination of Yunnan to the west. It has the largest population of people in poverty and lowest income per person in China, and the geography of the province has made it tough to travel around; mountainous roads and lack of infrastructure don’t make for easy tourism. Its biggest claim to fame has been Kweichow Moutai (Wade-Giles Romanization of Guizhou Maotai), the famous state-owned baijiu brand served to Richard Nixon when he met Mao Zedong.
But government investment over the past five years, including visits by President Xi Jinping, and a big domestic tourism push has made this under-the-radar province the hottest destination in the country. Travelers are being enticed to visit the karst caves, shop for batik cloth from local Miao minorities and try the spicy and sour flavors of Guizhou that have long been overshadowed by the cuisines of their neighboring provinces.
But once you’re out of the province, finding Guizhou restaurants serving authentic dishes can be difficult. Many of the ingredients used to create the trademark flavors of the region are only grown in its inimitable topography. And historically, the logistics of getting fresh produce out have proved difficult – but that has all changed.
Since 2018, Oha Eatery, the lead restaurant of the now powerhouse Oha Group, has been serving up “Guizhou-inspired tapas.” The restaurant group’s boss is originally from Guizhou, as was one of the original Oha chefs. Thus, the spot was offering small plates of big hometown flavors – with a twist – like fermented tofu with honey and Chinese clover or smoked pork and beans. But Oha Group went full Guizhou in late 2020 when they opened Maolago.
The two-story restaurant in the former French Concession continues the riff on Guizhou classics on its first floor, where a natural wine bar serves small plates reminiscent of Oha Eatery’s original dishes. But on the second floor, the specialty is hotpot, specifically sour & spicy fish (酸汤鱼 – one of Guizhou’s most famous dishes).
The two-story restaurant in the former French Concession continues the riff on Guizhou classics on its first floor. But on the second floor, the specialty is hotpot.
Led by Zou Mingyang, the chefs at Maolago make the ingredients for the broth daily from ingredients mostly brought in from Guizhou. Many of the ingredients don’t have English names, including the Maolago (毛辣果) itself, a tiny sour tomato that forms the base of the soup and the name of the restaurant. Try sticking mujiangzi (木姜子) into Google Translate, and you’ll likely just get the pinyin back with no explanation. Chef Zou translates it as “Mountain Lemon Pepper,” and uses it in the broth, as well as in the oil in the accompanying dipping sauce. Fresh green Sichuan peppercorn, “fish” coriander, lemongrass and yamana (a type of galangal) also make their way into the dish. The fish that are poached in the broth swim in a freshwater aquarium next to the door to the rooftop terrace, where an herb garden that was unfortunately flattened by the recent typhoon adds freshness to the cocktail list.
Like other hotpot restaurants, you can order platters of veggies, mushrooms, tofu and meat to cook with the fish in the broth. And the small plates from the first floor are also available as side dishes. Don’t miss the Potato Cake, a tuber dumpling fried in pork fat and served with an addictive five-spice chile dipping sauce. On the Chinese menu, it’s called 好朋友洋芋粑 or “best friend’s local potato cake” because this is the type of traditional street food you want to share with your mates. On our first visit, we ordered one and promptly asked for a second after our first bite.
The menu of small plates changes every few months, thanks to inspirational eating trips for the kitchen team to the province, led by Blake Thornley (Oha’s executive chef) and Chef Zou. They’re always discovering new ingredients and bringing back fresh ideas, so expect something new every time you go. But don’t worry – the hotpot and the potato cakes are always available.