Yummy House's new dim sum destination

A mix of the refined and the traditional at Yummy House China Bistro.

click to enlarge CHOICE BITS: Mixed in with metal bowls of tasty dim sum, offerings include (left to right) sesame balls, bok choy,  shrimnp balls and barbecued pork. - Shanna Gillette
Shanna Gillette
CHOICE BITS: Mixed in with metal bowls of tasty dim sum, offerings include (left to right) sesame balls, bok choy, shrimnp balls and barbecued pork.

When Yummy House opened a few years back, it started a competition the likes of which the Tampa food scene had never seen. Pretty much every restaurant critic and blogger weighed in, and debate was fast and occasionally furious on restaurant message boards like Chowhound. Which Chinese restaurant is the best in Tampa (and perhaps the entire Bay area): Yummy House or China Yuan?

In the end, that fight is all a matter of personal preference — both restaurants are gems well worth the title.

When the owners of Yummy House opened a much slicker spin-off — Yummy House China Bistro — this summer, it instantly suggested another restaurant battle royale, this time with the venerable and successful dim sum house TC Choy's in South Tampa.

There are plenty of similarities between the two spots: beautiful interiors, dim sum cart service at lunch, elegant Chinese cuisine built for the masses without compromising — too much — the authenticity of the food.

With its location in the heart of SoHo, TC Choy's has a big edge in terms of setting. YHCB is more of a destination spot — the commercially blighted neighborhood surrounding it on Hillsborough Avenue is hardly an attraction in itself. When it comes to the food, however, YHCB has an edge, depending on when you decide to visit.

On the weekends, YHCB's parking lot is packed with cars that overflow into the bank's lot next door. Shiny metal carts cruise through the dining room, dispensing metal bowls filled with steamed buns and fried chicken parts, plates of beautiful bok choy and handmade noodles glistening with sauce. Diners reach across tables with their chopsticks to snatch choice bits from their companions' plates, or reach into the center of the big family-style tables to spin the lazy susan like a culinary roulette wheel.

And, almost across the board, you'll feel like you've hit the jackpot during the weekend dim sum party. YHCB's Hong Kong roots are in full effect, shown in the silky elegance of the sauces, the perfectly cooked veggies, the delicacy of the buns.

Barbecued meats here are more subtle than at some spots, but one bite of sweet pork infused with five-spice, still tender and juicy, will remind you that flavor need not smack you in the face. Sometimes, though, a serious punch is what you need, as in YHCB's handmade rolled noodles, sauteed until gooey soft and dripping in the vinegar, oil and spice of the restaurant's signature Hong Kong XO sauce.

There are sweet and airy steamed buns filled with chopped pork or rich sweet potato paste, simple sticky rice stuffed with pork, chicken and sausage, and a host of vegetables like bright green Chinese broccoli doused in oyster sauce.

You can also find more adventurous dishes — deep-fried chicken feet, anyone? — but people with even a smidge of adventure in their palate will be able to load up the table with food, all at a price that is surprisingly low when you see the tally at the end of the meal.

YHCB does dim sum every day during lunch, although weekdays are much less lively. At night, the restaurant has a much different vibe, the tables largely populated by locals who ask the servers about pepper beef and wonton soup.

Much of YHCB's elegant food works well with that less knowledgeable crowd, the Hong Kong sauces and flavors naturally more refined and accessible than that at some more rustic Chinese restaurants. Even when the restaurant tones itself down for a weekday crowd, the result is still excellent.

If you've never had hot and sour soup anywhere but the corner takeout joint, try it here at YHCB, where the bright flavor of vinegar carries the chile heat and brightens the thick, rich broth. The restaurant's much-lauded salt and pepper tofu is still one of the 10 best things to eat in the entire Bay area, the salty fried garlic and peppers punctuating the crisp exterior and ethereal interior of the soy cubes, making converts even out of lifelong tofu avoiders.

There are also steaming hot pot stews featuring salt fish and black bean paste, basic chicken and veggies elevated by perfect cooking and luxurious sauces, and plenty of noodles that range from the delightfully crisp-and-soggy contrast of pan-fried Hong Kong styles to thick stir-fried varieties slicked with oil and peppery heat.

That blend of refined Hong Kong culinary style and traditional rustic Chinese cuisine is the key to YHCB, and what people will likely point to when picking sides in a dim sum fight between it and TC Choy's.

Of course, picking a winner isn't really the point. In the contests between China Yuan and Yummy House, the diners win either way.