Mar 13, 2009


China Yuan – The Kingdom of Dim Sum Happiness

I recently wrote a review of Ha Long Bay, a restaurant I was hoping would save me a trip across the Bay to Tampa to get good dim sum, those wonderful small plates of Chinese delights which translate so aptly as “touch the heart.”  When done well they certainly do.  Unfortunately Ha Long Bay fell far short of the mark.  So today I’m going to review my favorite dim sum destination in Tampa Bay, and in many ways my favorite Chinese restaurant in this area, China Yuan.

The Restaurant

China Yuan is located at 8502 N Armenia Ave # 1A in Tampa in a small strip center that includes a mix of ethnic businesses that makes for some very interesting browsing.  It is really known as China Yuan Seafood Restaurant because it has a wealth of Chinese dishes beyond dim sum including Hong Kong style seafood.

I first visited China Yuan about five years ago when it was a small, but excellent, Chinese restaurant known for its noodle soups and roast duck, among other things.  I thought the duck was some of the best I’d had and the noodle soups rivaled my favorite Vietnamese pho.  The downside was that the place was so small it filled up quickly and there wasn’t much of a place to wait.  Along with this the atmosphere was severely lacking, not that it really mattered to me, I was there for the food.

Then about a year or so ago things changed dramatically, and for the better.  The restaurant expanded to double its original size and the décor got a big upgrade as well.  Still there is the duck case with hanging roast ducks, pork belly, and other roast yummies.  Everything else about the atmosphere has changed.

I’m not saying that China Yuan has transformed itself into some trendy Asian-fusion joint with flat panel TVs everywhere and that too cool black and red industrial design décor all those places seem to sport, thank God.  No, China Yuan has gone from being tired to up to date, dingy to immaculate. The dining room is now a very comfortable place with earth tone tiles on the floor, track lighting on the ceiling, and simple yet attractive furniture.  There are plenty of tables for four and several large round family-sized tables sporting lazy susans.  On one wall you’ll see tanks full of fish that can be ordered for one of China Yuan’s delicious seafood dishes.  Talk about fresh seafood.

Atmosphere Rating: 7/10

The Food

Reading China Yuan’s menu is a bit like skimming ‘War and Peace’, it’s a daunting task.  Just the soups alone list over forty choices and the dim sum options are another forty plus.  Deciding what to have sometimes takes longer than the meal itself, but you have to love the possibilities the menu presents.  This is the kind of place where you could eat once a week for a year and not repeat the same things once, if you wanted to.  Me, I have certain favorites I can’t do without like their unbelievably tasty Crispy Roast Duck ($9.00/half or $16.99/whole).  Even before the expansion China Yuan was known for having some of the best, if not the best, roast duck in Tampa.  It still does and the flavor is absolutely amazing.  Ever so slightly sweet and mildly aromatic with juicy tender meat and crispy skin that has been shed of most of its fat yet retains all of its flavor.

Since the menu is so large I’m going to confine this review to China Yuan’s dim sum dishes, which in my opinion are the best in Tampa Bay hands down.  Some things we always get are the Fried Taro Dumplings (2.95), which are my son’s favorites and a dim sum standard with mashed taro surrounding ground pork and other savory ingredients.  China Yuan’s version are huge with a crisp exterior and chalk full of the ground pork mixture.  Not that big is always better, there are plenty of awful sushi bars with non-Japanese chefs who believe that big hunks of fish compensates for a lack of knowledge of proper fish selection or cutting skill.  In this case the taro dumplings are both big and delicious.

My personal favorite is the Fried Mix Dumpling ($2.45) an oval shaped rice flour dumpling stuffed with a slightly sweet mixture of pork and other goodies that has an incredible chewy, yet crispy texture and savory/sweet taste.  These are so good dipped in sweet soy sauce laced with vinegar and a healthy dash of chili in oil.  At China Yuan these reach the peak of perfection with full centers and the perfect contrast between the slight crispiness of the outside and the chewiness of the rice flour batter.  You really have to try them to understand what I mean.

Some of the other dishes we enjoy are the Steam Chive Dumplings ($2.95) which are a variation of the typical steamed dumpling or pot sticker found in many Chinese restaurants. In this case the dumplings are flat with very thin wrappers and stuffed with a filing tasting predominantly of chives.  Another very tasty dish that lets the newbie know that a whole new world exists beyond the appetizer menu at their favorite Chinese take out. 

Steamed Spare Ribs ($2.85) are China Yuan’s version of the dim sum dish steamed spare ribs in black bean sauce.  Here as with most places the ribs are chopped into bite sized pieces.  The difference I see is that they are less fatty and the black bean flavor is more prominent.  Another dish, Fried Shrimp Balls ($3.25) presents meatball sized balls of shrimp with a firm exterior and light spongy interior that tastes of fresh shrimp.  Yet another wonderful choice is the Shrimp Rice Paste ($2.95) that features an oversized rice noodle sheet wrapped around plump shrimp with sweet soy sauce drizzled on top.  We love these and China Yuan does it right with light chewy rice noodles that almost melt in your mouth and plump, juicy shrimp, so simple yet so good.  They are also available in a beef an pork version which are equally good.

The menu contains so much more that I can’t even begin to do it justice.  Suffice to say that I’ve yet to go wrong with any choice after dozens of visits.  From hot & sour soup to Beef Brisket in Hot Pot, everything is stunning.  Tampa Bay, in China Yuan you have found your temple of happiness.

Food Rating: 9/10

The Prices

When you have the trifecta of generous portions, top quality food, and very competitive prices you have a value that is a grand slam home run.  There are very few restaurants in Tampa Bay that offer the value that a meal at China Yuan offers.  Some may have food as good but are pricier or have smaller portions.  Others may offer cheaper food or, hard to believe, larger portions but the food isn’t nearly as good.  China Yuan does it all.

Value Rating: 10/10

The Service

The service at China Yuan might not be quite as polished as TC Choy was in its heyday, but the wait staff tries much harder to please.  Any request we have had has been met with a smile and quick response.  They really seem to want their customers to leave with a good impression.  More than once at TC Choy the wait staff seemed overly stressed and inefficient.  At China Yuan it is much more relaxing because you’re not spending a good portion of your time simply searching for a staff member.

Service Rating: 7/10

The Hours

China Yuan is open Monday through Thursday from 11am to 10pm, Friday and Saturday from 10:30am to 11pm, and Sunday from 10:30am to 10pm. 

Be prepared on Sundays at lunch that you might find a large crowd of families enjoying dim sum and other delights.  I will say that china Yuan does a very good job of turning tables so your wait shouldn’t be anywhere near as long as at popular TC Choy

The Parking

The plaza in which China Yuan is located is not terribly large and the parking lot is shared by several other businesses.  Having said that it isn't too difficult to find a space on all but the busiest times (read Saturday and Sunday lunch).