On a lazy weekend day in New York or Los Angeles or Orlando, a lot of people get the same idea: dim sum, with cart after cart of delicious, intricately folded dumplings, rolling around the room. Diners point and little plates are whisked onto their tables until they have the dawning awareness of their own overambition. Straining a little at the seams, they all depart with one thought: nap time.
For some reason, the Tampa Bay area has a limited number of dim sum options, especially with cart service. Opened a year ago near the University of South Florida, Hong Kong House offers dim sum every day. During the week, it's ordered a la carte, but on the weekend, there are three carts meandering around the big, square room. It is less frenetic than many dim sum experiences I've had, and it's also less expensive (all those little plates have a way of creeping up the bill).
This is the time to be bold. Aim first at the easy stuff, the pillowy pork buns and bouncy fish balls or open-topped shrimp shumai. But then start pointing at the less familiar items: the mild turnip cake, tofu skin rolls and bowls of luminous jellyfish salad or lavishly spiced chicken feet. (The trick to staving off the post-dim sum nap is to not fixate exclusively on carbs — get some protein in there, stat.)
On the weekends, there are upwards of 50 choices, from custardy egg tarts to fried eggplant stuffed with a shrimp paste. But you can still order regular dishes a la carte if you want to complicate matters.
I will say this: At this juncture, Yummy House (and its second bistro location) and China Yuan are the Chinese restaurants to beat in Tampa, and ABC Seafood is tops in Pinellas. Hong Kong House never quite reaches those heights, but there's a lot of strong work here, served in very generous portions and at very reasonable prices.
Owned by the folks in charge of adjacent MD Oriental Market, their ambitions are, as the name suggests, the Hong Kong-style, seafood-heavy Cantonese, drawing from live fish tanks at the back. In a couple of visits, I didn't see much dipping into the tanks, but it's a solid place for dungeness crab, or whole fish steamed with black bean sauce or with ginger and scallion. Depending on when you time your visit, Hong Kong House is also a purveyor of alternative meats: Frog, razor clam, snails, quail and goat crop up on the menu. (Okay, I was too scared to order something simply called "frog pot.")
Salt and pepper preparations are common through much of the menu, the best being the calamari ($8.99), but the breading is pretty heavy. A great number of breaded and fried dishes — the crispy Hong Kong-style eggplant ($7.99), for instance — would be greatly enhanced by a vivacious dipping sauce. An order of these segueing into a dish of crispy orange chicken or sesame chicken (both $10.99) really calls out for something light and healthy, like a plate of bright green snow pea tips dotted with mellow garlic cloves ($8.99).
Billing itself as an Asian banquet hall, Hong Kong House has a number of tables for large parties, with servers who are adept at ferrying multiple steaming plates from the kitchen. Interpersonally, service can be a bit tentative and cryptic, although very well-intentioned, on menu explications.
With a short list of wines and beers, tea and soft drinks, it's not going to knock anyone for a loop with its liquid innovations. But as a place to corral a passel for weekend dim sum (which literally means "touch the heart"), Hong Kong House will grab you.
Laura Reiley can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley on Twitter. She dines anonymously and unannounced; the Times pays all expenses.