I have read so many reviews about this restaurant that I finally broke away from my usual weekend afternoon dim sum at Ho Ho Choy to give China Yuan a try. It met all of my expectations and more. I felt as if I was at my favorite NYC Chinatown basement eating establishment tasting crispy, tender, and flavorful roast and BBQ meats. Hands down, this is the best place to get Chinese BBQ in Tampa, FL area. And, it seems to be their signature dish. BBQ: They have roast as well as BBQ duck and pork. Where else can you get Soy Sauce Chicken or duck feet and wing tips? Their BBQ (red charsu) pork is the most tender that I have ever had! I said to my dining partner, “I am sorry if this seems kind of strange, but those BBQ pork makes me want to cry.” Tears of happiness that is! I have been so many places that do not BBQ their own meats in house and the quality has suffered from all of the reheating of the meat. But, China Yuan makes all of their own and the quality is top notch. The best thing about China Yuan is that their BBQ comes in platters, which means you can get a combination platter of 3 different types of BBQ meat with rice for only $7.95! That is enough for two people as a main course. That plate is loaded over the top with delicious roast meats of your choice, each with its own dipping sauce. VEGETABLE: Make sure to ask for their house vegetable and what is in season, sometimes they have snow pea tips ($6.50) and they always have gai lan ($6.50). Their Eggplant Hot Pot (about $7.00) is a metal pot with a handle that has eggplant and ground pork which is always my favorite. DIM SUM: They also have a full dim sum menu and they do not have photos of it (for those of you who need the photos). Their Har Gow ($2.50) is handmade and is more unique than most places; it has a sesame and black pepper taste. SOUP: This is the only Chinese restaurant that I have been to in the Tampa area that has a full noodle house soup menu. There is nothing better than fresh egg noodle and wonton soup, mixed with sweet and salty broth and a seasonal vegetable, and your favorite BBQ sliced on top for only $6.50. We ordered enough food for 8 people and it was only $48.00! Make sure to get their early if you have a large party and order as much as you like, because it is extremely affordable. Don’t forget to get a half duck ($8.00) to go you won’t regret it. Fry the skin and fat for wraps, boil the bones for broth, and chop the meat and eat with rice. China Yuan is located in an excellent small strip mall off of Waters Ave. After you eat, you can go shopping at Din Ho market, get some sweet at the Chinese Bakery, and drive around the corner to get some bubble tea at Got Tea.
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.
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
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
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 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
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 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).
St Petersburg Times – 1/17/08
China Yuan was always good, its burnished-skinned ducks practically flying out of their glass case and onto plates of the eager and the lucky. But the dining room was punitively bright, bare-bones, a little cold and a lot cramped: like a small elementary school cafeteria, but one that serves insanely good Chinese food.
All that changed Nov. 18 when the doors reopened after an expansion and major remodeling. The new space is airy, fronted by a bank of windows and populated by generous round tables suitable for big parties. There’s nice art (a painting of very buff horses thundering along somewhere exotic) and about the cleanest bathrooms in all of Tampa.
You’re not coming for the bathrooms, though. You’re eager for the salt and pepper calamari ($8.99), crisply fried but tender squidded. An array of dim sum, not cart service, brings delicate shrimp har gow and cup-shaped meat siu mai, roast pork buns (like meat-filled doughnuts, what’s not to like?) and flaky fried chive dumplings. A major carb-load best mitigated with an order of spicy eggplant with garlic ($7.95) or sauteed pea sprouts ($7.95).
I wondered when Yuan would wise up – such lush food clearly deserves its swanky new setting.
— Laura Reiley, Times food critic
Tampa Tribune – Video
Tampa Underbelly Tour Rides Again
Flavorful sauces add zing to the offerings at China Yuan
BY BRIAN RIES
HOOKED ON A CEILING: The barbecued birds in China Yuan hang on display for diners.
“We’ve gotta get one of those,” says one of my companions, pointing to an array of plucked birds hanging from hooks in a glass case at the back of China Yuan’s exceptionally bright dining area.
The lighting is surgical-suite bright, assisted by the white-on-white décor of the small room. Except for one anomaly: the display case full of barbecued animals.
Several are hanging by their delicate, desiccated necks. At one end of the bird is a sight that you rarely see in our sanitized restaurant world: your dinner’s head, cooked along with the rest of the body, eye sockets beaming an empty stare that is not nearly as accusatory as you might think. The body is stained in shades of honey, caramel and mahogany, the colors of a bamboo-trimmed armoire from Pier 1. The fat is almost completely rendered, leaving the skin taught and crisp and slightly fuzzy with the detritus of a plucking job that’s less than thorough.
These are ducks, of course, a staple here at China Yuan, where owner Peter Chan barbecues more than 100 every week to be sold for take-out and at the table. There are also chickens in the case — pale and plain or darkened with soy, sides of pork that look like over-cured bacon, and a bin of duck feet and wings.
Which we order first thing, eliciting a slight chuckle and a “you sure?” from our amused server. Sure, duck feet ($2) — nothing but skin and cartilage — are, for all intents and purposes, inedible, and duck wings are fatty, stringy versions of their chicken brethren. But I must uphold my hardcore eating cred, right? Or maybe I’m overcompensating for the fact that our table is peopled by the only non-Asians in the place. In any case, most of the glistening wings and feet go uneaten.
The rest of the duck ($8) is another story entirely. We watch Chan pull a bird off the hook and separate it into two halves with a hefty cleaver, then hack our half into neat inch-wide pieces, bones and all. The meat is a little spongy, but it’s seasoned throughout by rendered fat carrying the five-spice powder that coats the crisped skin. Maybe it won’t lure me across town as a substitute for rotisserie chicken, but it’s good.
Better are slices of barbecue pork ($4.50), chopped off one of the slabs in the cabinet, and half a chicken steamed in soy ($3.95). The pork is succulent and dry at the same time, the way a very fatty piece of pork can get when cooked very slowly for a very, very long time. It also has a tickle of five-spice — obviously the seasoning of choice here at China Yuan. Chicken, likely due to the steaming, is exceptionally moist despite the stay in the hotbox, with just enough salt from the soy-darkened skin to season the meat.
By this time, everyone at the table has taken to adding heaping spoonfuls of China Yuan’s hot pepper garlic sauce to their plates. The brick-red oil, fortified with minced pepper skins and seeds, and whole cloves of roasted garlic, is bolstered by a mysterious fresh flavor that none of us can identify. “Oh yeah,” says Chan. “It’s got a secret ingredient.”
Apparently, some of his customers pay for vats of the stuff to take home, while others might go through two jars of it during a single meal. That’s a little more spice than I’m after, but I can see the attraction. When tossed with China Yuan’s salt fish and chicken fried rice ($7.95), the blend of flavors is astounding. Each bite is an explosion of intense salt, spice, garlic and oil, carried by the otherwise delicate wokked rice. The special ingredient is the key to the whole experience, mediating the power of the heat and freshening the palate for the next forkful of goodness.
The cubes of beef in China Yuan’s brisket hot pot ($9.50) are as silky and luscious as homemade pot roast. There is a lot of connective tissue still clinging to the meat, but it is rendered soft and silky by the long, slow braise. “Asians like that; it’s good,” assures Chan, and he watches as I gamely chew through bite after bite of meat and tendon. It’s worth the effort, especially when joined with the crunchy cabbage that lines the bottom of the bowl.
Besides the barbecue and beef, China Yuan is a primarily Cantonese joint, largely represented by seafood and veggies doused in delicate oyster or pungent black bean sauce. Sure, my squid ($8.50) is so chewy that it’s a tossup whether the beef or these tubes of calamari take more mastication, but the sauce is worth it. Subtly salty, deeply earthy fermented beans are paired with shakes of fresh black pepper to give the stir-fry multiple layers of flavor. Add in some more of that hot sauce, and it’s almost too much to handle.
No complaints; this is what I’m after. Following my disappointing trip to an “Asian” buffet a few weeks ago, several readers e-mailed me with their suggestions for a more authentic experience. Thankfully, China Yuan’s name kept popping up.
Even with the duck feet and sections of connective tissue left untouched on our plates, we seem to have passed some sort of test with Chan. “Your order like Asians order,” he says, and proceeds to disclose the secret of his hot sauce. As soon as he mentions the missing link that turns mundane spice into superior fresh flavor, I can taste it. Simple, but brilliant.
He doesn’t swear us to secrecy, assuring me that the way he makes it cannot be replicated, but I’m still not going to reveal the special ingredient. You’ll have to stretch your flaccid taste buds and hope you impress China Yuan’s owner enough that he’ll let you in on the secret.
Brian Ries is a former restaurant general manager with an advanced diploma from the Court of Master Sommeliers. Planet food critics dine anonymously, and the paper pays for the meals. Restaurants chosen for review are not related to advertising
St Petersburg Times
St Petersburg Times
By CHRIS SHERMAN
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 firstname.lastname@example.org
BY MARY D. SCOURTES
Tampa Tribune – Tampa, Fla.
TAMPA – With ducks hanging and chickens swinging in its glass case, China Yuan Restaurant is authentic Chinese.
It’s not like taking a trip to Chinatown, it’s more like visiting China. Duck wings, beaks and feet are offered here, too.
No passport is required at this eatery, located in the corner of a strip shopping center on north Armenia Avenue.
Just bring a sense of adventure. Our wimpy tasters, who initially were less than enthused about their visit, left pleased.
One slight problem is that you don’t know much about your food until it arrives, because the menu lacks descriptive explanations. “Fish Fillet with Vegetable” or “Buddha Delight” doesn’t give you much to go on, so you might order something you don’t like. Especially since there can be a language barrier when talking to servers.
Manager Peter Chan says customers flock here for the duck. Chefs Jian Su and Yuan Chan roast about 15 to 20 ducks on weekdays, adding more on weekends.
China Yuan features about 30 dim sum, the bite-size dumplings, pastries and rolls that translate from Chinese as “heart’s delight.” Not restricting their dim sum menu to the early part of the day, as in many restaurants, the cooks here serve chicken feet, beef tripe, turnip pudding and a sweet Crispy Sesame Ball at night.
Order a handful of these little plates and share them with the whole table on a Lazy Susan.
Fried Mix Dumpling, with a tasty pork filling, was our favorite. Semi-firm Stuffed Tofu featured a dull gray, ground pork that we would have liked cooked longer. The tofu wedges had a tasty brown sauce.
Siu Mei, which are little mushroom- and pork-filled pastries, and thin egg rolls were standard appetizers.
Roasted Duck, like any other duck, is fatty but has a crisp skin and moist meat, and arrives with a little container of broth. There are lots of bones to avoid.
The soups here are different. The wonton soup, for instance, is served Hong Kong-style with both fish and shrimp broth.
Fresh Squid in Pepper and Black Bean Sauce is a dish filled with flavor, featuring tender bites of the scored seafood in a spicy sauce.
A platter of Snow Pea Tips, an entree of bright green leaves sauteed with garlic, is not on the menu but is a must-try.
Another special is fried rice, cooked with shrimp, chicken and ham. A blue crab dish with plenty of sweet claws comes saturated in a zesty black bean sauce.
Bright purple baby eggplants are swaddled in a seasoned garlic sauce that stays warm in a small metal hot pot. Another hot pot filled with brisket had wonderful flavor from five-spice seasoning, but the beef was too fatty for our lean New Year’s resolutions.
Other entree selections include Soy Sauce Chicken, Chicken in Onion Oil and another dish called Salted Fish, Chicken, Tofu Hot Pot.
If your taste buds are in the doldrums, a few dabs of the restaurant’s chili sauce will awaken any mild dish.
The waitress was clear that she wanted our appetizers and entrees ordered together, which was puzzling since the food came out all mixed up.
Service during two visits was friendly, although taxed when crowded.
(CHART) DINING REVIEW
- BOTTOM LINE: North Tampa stop for roasted duck and authentic Cantonese food
- CRITIC’S RATING: Food: C+; Service: C+
- WHERE: 8502 N. Armenia Ave., Tampa
- HOURS: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday, 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday
- CREDIT CARDS: All major
- RESERVATIONS: Yes
- CHILDREN’S MENU: No
- WHEELCHAIR ACCESS: Yes
- ALCOHOL: None
- PRICE RANGE: Entrees range from $6.95 to $12, with market price lobster at $21
- CALL: (813) 936-7388
Tribune reviewers eat anonymously. Mary D. Scourtes can be reached at (813) 259-7635.