Oct 28, 2012
In my recent post about the nearby Yummy Noodle House, I mentioned regularly dining at China Yuan when in this area. While there are some things that Yummy House and it's siblings do better, China Yuan is pretty much invariably a good place to eat. I recently had my daughter and her sisters under my watch while going to get my hair braided around the corner, and we had dinner here afterwards. While I normally enjoy crispy pig intestines and other interesting goodies when here, I decided to keep it pretty classic and safe because I had the girls with me. They are pretty adventurous, but I like to cover the basics that they haven't experienced yet.
Who doesn't love crispy skin roast pork? This classic Hong Kong style dish often starts out hanging in windows among ducks, chickens, char sui, and other "BBQ" goodies at southern Chinese restaurants and groceries. It is served room temperature, cooked well done with crackling crisp skin and a side of hoisin sauce. In most cases (and I believe in this one) it is made with the universally-loved pork belly, once again demonstrating the versatility of this cut. While I have never encountered a bad version of this dish, China Yuan's is particularly good, with the crispest skin possible that is not in the slightest bit tough or chewy. The kids devoured this dish, although Jewel refused to eat the skin or try the hoisin sauce (which I would expect to be a kid's favorite elements). Just the plain meat alone was good enough for her to attempt to gorge on it and evade eating anything else, which of course I couldn't allow to happen, partly because I wanted her to try more, and partly because I wanted some more pork for myself.
Minced beef and cilantro soup was the only dish we ordered that I haven't had before. I had to make a point of trying at least one new thing, even if on the safe side. The tiny bits of beef and just wilted cilantro were mixed into what was basically an egg drop soup. Delicate soups in this family, like the pork skin soup at Yummy Noodle House, tend to lack salt for my tastes (which is a situation that can fortunately be rectified at the table if a salt shaker is present, however I wouldn't use soy sauce like I do in congee for fear of overpowering it) but their lightness is greatly enjoyable in the beginning of a meal, stimulating the palate while not disrupting the appetite (which you almost always need for whats to come at Chinese restaurants).
While Yummy House and Yummy House China Bistro are well known for their salt and pepper mix, I like this boldly flavorful preperation so much (and long have before moving to Tampa) that I'll order it even when I'm somewhere that may not make it quite as good. I also factored into my decision that the kids would probably like it as well as that I was on a limited budget and this dish (the salt and pepper calamari) is less than 9 bucks. As it turned out, the Yummy Houses may have the better version, but only with a very slight edge. The China Yuan version contains less fried garlic, and more bell pepper than the Yummy Houses' version (which I believe don't contain it at all). While I love the near overkill of garlicky crunch one encounters at YHCB, this version is more sentimental for me as it is more reminiscent of the version I would often encounter in New York's Chinatown. I ended up eating more of this than the kids. It's hard to resist.
Singapore style rice noodles (or chow mei fun) are also a classic standby. While I can't recall if I've tried them at YH/YHCM, my friend and mentor Ferrel Alvarez (executive chef of Cafe Dufrain, where I currently work) was recently featured in an article where he praised their version of this dish, so I can comfortably assume it's very good. This is also one of the few dishes than recieves comparatively minor bastardization when ordered at American Chinese takeout restaurants, and I often thoroughly enjoy it in that incarnation as well. China Yuan's version, unfortunately, was not memorable among others I've had. It was light on curry and skimp on garnishes. Was it enjoyable? Yes, I still ate quite a bit of it. It's just not something I would order from here again because they have better dishes to offer, and other places (even, dare I say it, American Chinese takeouts) make better versions of it. It's very possibly that this version, lighter on seasoning and sparse on garnishes, is closer to the norm encountered in Hong Kong (I don't know because I've never been there, just tons of restaurants in NYC Chinatown that may or may not tweak dishes to local tastes), but what's traditional isn't always what tastes better to me... although the times when it isn't are definitely in the minority, particulary when it comes to Chinese.
China Yuan remains one of my favorite and most visited restaurants in Tampa. If I needed only one Chinese restaurant in Tampa to satisfy my needs because Chinese cuisine wasn't pretty much my favorite cuisine to eat as well as the most nostalgic to me (a completely hypothetical situation which couldn't be further from true), I'd probably settle on Yummy House China Bistro. Honestly though, I don't know how anyone with half a palate could put Chinese cuisine that low on the totem poll. If you are anywhere near here and hungry, you should eat here. You won't regret it.
8502 North Armenia Ave. #1A
Tampa, FL 33604