Apr 21, 2004

St Petersburg Times

China Yuan in Tampa revives the joys of Cantonese cuisine with its remarkably fresh, handcrafted offerings.

Published April 22, 2004


[Times photo: John Pendygraft]

The dishes at China Yuan include, clockwise from bottom, a combination platter of five-spice duck, roast duck, steamed chicken and crispy pork; five-spice duck; and chrysanthemum tea with sticky rice wrapped in banana leaves.

TAMPA - Remember Chinese food? Before we were burned by Thai peppers, flooded by Vietnamese soup and assaulted by a tidal wave of sushi, there was Chinese. For many, it was an opportunity to make a meal without meat.

You can rediscover Chinese food at China Yuan, a tiny single stall of a strip center on N Armenia Avenue, in the multicultural heart of immigrant Tampa.

Or perhaps discover the true glories of Chinese food, because we haven't seen them much in the past few decades of takeout and buffets. China Yuan is packed with the authentic goods, from dim sum to home-smoked barbecue. It may have only a dozen tables, one of them a happy family 10-seater, but China Yuan has more treats than an oversized Lazy Susan can hold.

The signature barbecue dishes, whole chicken and long-necked ducks, squid and pork bellies, glisten from hooks in the back case, salt-crisped, soy-glazed and five-spiced. Fat and smoke never married more happily.

If that's too primitive, come for the wonton soup. Yes, you've had it before, but not like this: whole shrimp wrapped in fresh pastry sheets like an artisan tortellini or beggar's purse, poached in chicken broth with baby bok choy. Split a $4.95 bowl or feast on it by yourself and you'll agree: These wontons alone set a new standard for Chinese food and earn the local heavyweight belt.

I almost missed them myself because I couldn't believe the server recommended plain old wonton soup. Then I saw a steaming bowl pass by. I discovered wilted snow pea tips the same way, thankfully soon enough to add them to our dinner. They are a wow of a vegetable, bright green leaves sweeter and smokier than spinach, perfect with oyster sauce.

Indeed, like the best ethnic restaurants, this is a place to order with your eye and your index finger. The menu is short and a few seasonal goodies such as whole crabs slippery with black bean sauce are not on it, and the descriptions may sound plain, so don't be afraid to say "What's that?"

I can steer you away from only one dish, a limp seafood tofu hot pot that had more soy cubes than shrimp or calamari.

Hot pots employ one of my favorite Chinese cooking techniques. China Yuan makes a sublime eggplant and garlic version and another lively one of salted fish and chicken. Then there's the sweet-spiced beef brisket that walked right by me on my last visit and almost lifted me out of my chair.

More? If you have a big table, crispy snapper, pan-fried whole, is a must; and parties of any size should have a plate of jumbo shrimp, head on, crusted with salt and pepper.

The rest of the menu is a variety of dim sum in a Hong Kong style that ranges from small dumplings to chow fun and Singapore noodles. All are ordered a la carte, rather than off the rolling carts, so the selection is not as vast as T.C. Choy's. But there's still fun in steamed fun gor stuffed with seafood and punched with cilantro and little squares of savory turnip cake.

This is a feast made for sharing, and plenty of families gather here for just that, with all the kids (and Game Boys) in tow. The restaurant is small and servers are stretched, so newcomers should approach with respect, patience and, ideally, reservations.

If you have to wait, head out on Armenia or Waters to Tampa's newest communities, or stay and explore Evershine Square, a longtime Asian shopping center with a newer Latin beat in the background. You can buy fresh walnut cookies and Chinese buns, cruise an Asian market, watch a coffeehouse full of men bent over Vietnamese games or sample a Peruvian rotisserie.

China Yuan is worth the wait, to enjoy remarkably fresh, handcrafted food and to restore the good name of Cantonese cooking. When you add up the bill, it will remind you that the best meals are made with more care than money.

-- Chris Sherman dines anonymously and unannounced. The Times pays for all expenses. A restaurant's advertising has nothing to do with selection for a review or the assessment of its quality. Chris Sherman can be reached at 727 893-8585 or [email protected]