TAMPA —Tired of all the doom and gloom in business news? Well, pull up a chair and listen to a couple of local success stories. At the end of 2006, Yummy House opened on Waters Avenue, and Chinese food fans went crazy. Finally, a sophisticated Hong Kong-style restaurant with to-die-for whole fish and Peking duck and salt-and-pepper squid. Okay, maybe it's a little bit of a dump, but whatever. And in Ybor City, Laughing Cat slowly built an avid clientele over 11 years so that by 2010 the place was turning away eager supplicants in droves. It reached No. 2 on Trip Advisor's list of Tampa restaurants, handily beating out big guns like Bern's and the Columbia.
This summer, both restaurants did the next logical thing. They expanded. Yummy House added a second location, this one called Yummy House China Bistro, a much more glamorous freestanding building on a slightly bedraggled stretch of Hillsborough Avenue. Laughing Cat marched its business right across the street, departing the tiny space at 1820 N 15th St. and settling into the Streetcar Charlie's spot at 1811 N 15th St. Both of these new restaurant locations are large (in Laughing Cat's case, twice as large as the original), and both appear to have hit the ground running, adding dramatically to their long lists of devotees.
Each restaurant has made some smart changes in its new ventures. For Yummy House China Bistro, they've added dim sum cart service at lunch, a rarity in these parts offered only by a handful of places like T.C. Choy and Ho Ho Choy. At Laughing Cat, the once-vast menu has been pared down somewhat to reflect chef Franco LoRe's most popular dishes.
On our first visit to the new Yummy we ate Chinese dishes that Chinese people might order; on our second, we opted for more accessible Chinese-American dishes that many non-Chinese grew up with. Whether steamed lobster in ginger sauce (market price) or sweet and sour chicken ($8.50), Yummy does it right.
In a beautiful, airy dining room suitable for big parties (with a lovely private dining space visible off the back), there are stylish bamboo sculptures, a long central bar and a hip red and black color scheme. It's festive, lending itself to a splurge of Peking duck ($32) with its burnished skin, sumptuous layer of fat and rich meat, all tucked into sturdy pancakes with a dab of hoisin and some scallion curls. Feeling less flush? The salt-and-pepper tofu ($7.99) is still one of my faves, the little fried-and-dusted blocks sitting on a pile of addictive bits (jalapeno, crisply roasted garlic, scallion and ginger). Snow pea tips with roasted garlic ($12) comes in a close second, juicier and more flavorful than sauteed spinach, but with that same nearly grassy green flavor (this is a dish the slothful should never try at home — picking the tender greens from the stalks can be an all-day affair).
Look around the packed dining room and you'll see chopsticks swooping and lazy susans spinning dizzily as diners try to get at their favorite dishes. Over at Laughing Cat, it's more "hold your own." But you're holding a lot. Portions can be mondo — one night's rolled, stuffed eggplant appetizer ($9.95) could easily have fed one or more as an entree. It's food that might appeal to the strict Italophile but that's generous and accessible enough to satisfy the Italian-American as well. The decor is fairly casual, with the kind of no-frills chairs you see in hotel banquet rooms, but the Italian wine list is about as serious as it gets in these parts.
A top appetizer called funghi trifolati ($8.95) brings an avalanche of sauteed assorted mushrooms with roasted red peppers and artichokes, the whole thing piquant with lemon and jazzed with garlic and basil. Follow that up with a bowl of linguini malafemmina (the noodles nearly obscured by fat shrimp, sea scallops, mussels and calamari in a lively tomato sauce; $19.95) and you'll be happily groaning (or departing with weighty to-go containers).
Service at both new restaurants has the benefit of not being new at all. Veteran servers and management have merely been relocated, giving both locations assured pacing and a sense of continuity. Indeed, each restaurant is an example of finding a formula that works and tweaking it just enough to flourish in a new setting.
Laura Reiley can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293. She dines anonymously and unannounced. The Times pays all expenses. Advertising has nothing to do with selection for review or the assessment.