By Laura Reiley
Times Food Critic
Henry Lo had a little Chinese takeout place called Kwan Ming on Himes Avenue for several years, a place that wormed its way into the hearts of some of South Tampa's swankiest residents. He remembers the time a Bayshore type rode over with his entourage in a Panther de Ville, the car Cruella drove in 101 Dalmatians. It was a tough location, though, and soon Lo decamped to State Road 56 in Wesley Chapel.
I'm going to be honest. It's still a tough location: The strip mall is hard to see from the road and nothing in the strip seems to be packing them in. The new Kwan Ming deserves to be mentioned as a top Chinese restaurant in Pasco County — but people have to find it first.
With not even a dozen tables, Kwan Ming is clean and spare and inviting, Lo and team whipping back and forth from the kitchen with dishes and suggestions. The menu outstrips the space in terms of ambition and scope, with sophisticated Hong Kong-style cuisine we don't see too much of in the Tampa Bay area.
It's heavy on the seafood, shrimp and scallops taking starring roles in traditional preparations from black bean sauce to lobster sauce. And, in general, veggies are snappy and tender-crisp, ranging from wok-sizzled string beans to tender gai choi (a special one night, the Chinese mustard greens look like the marriage of bok choy and celery and have a little spicy kick, great with ginger and garlic).
Lo marinates his proteins carefully, layering in flavor and maximizing tenderness of beef, pork and chicken. The Hong Kong-style roast pork is especially lovely, offered simply sliced as an appetizer ($6.95), but you'll also find bits of it studding the roast pork lo mein ($8.95) or fried rice ($8.95). And beef is shown off to excellent effect in dishes like a special of beef and Chinese broccoli ($10.75), a savory brown sauce a nice contrast to the vibrant, still-snappy green stalks and tender, thin slices of meat.
Still, in a couple of visits my favorite dishes were tofu (sue me, I like tofu): Thin squares heaped with onions and veggies got a savory wallop from black bean sauce (its flavor not unlike the bitter tang of olives; $8.95), but the sweet and sour tofu ($10.95) was the kind of crowd pleaser that even kids could tuck into with gusto, the sauce with just enough zip to offset the sweetness.
Kwan Ming does all the fundamentals well — egg rolls ($1.75); scoops of fragrant white rice in little bowls; hot and sour soup ($5.25) floating bits of egg and wood ear mushrooms; the deep-fried indulgence of sesame chicken ($9.90); or koo loo pork ($9.35; it's just another name for sweet and sour pork).
But the opportunity to branch out a little should be tempting. Lo uses no trans fat oil and relies heavily on fresh veggies such as squash and even tomato. With dishes like his signature Szechuan shrimp ($11.50), he offers simple presentations that showcase sophisticated and complex flavors.
Kwan Ming's wine and beer list is very limited, as are the dessert offerings. A simple fortune cookie may be the way to wrap things up at Kwan Ming. And if I could write a fortune for Lo, I would offer, "May you have a long and prosperous run in your new location."
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.