TAMPA — The aromas of smoke and spice fill the room, tickling the back of your throat with delightful portend: chiles and cumin, Sichuan peppercorns and chargrilled meats.
Then, there are the sounds.
Toward the back of the restaurant, in the kitchen, there’s the hiss and crackle of meat sizzling on the grill. Out in the dining room — much to the amusement and entertainment of customers — a 4-year-old boy is belting out “Baby Shark” over a microphone, assisted by a snappy karaoke backdrop.
This is Flaming Mountain Chinese Grill & Skewer Bar, a new Chinese restaurant in Tampa and the purveyor of some of the most exciting food I’ve eaten all year.
Husband and wife Hongfeng Li, 40, and Ling Wu, 36, opened their restaurant in May inside a strip mall off of E Fletcher Avenue, near the University of South Florida’s Tampa campus. Running the kitchen is chef Wei Zhang, who previously worked in restaurants in New York City.
Li and Wu are originally from Shenyang, the capital city of China’s northeast Liaoning Province, and the cooking here emphasizes the hallmark flavors of both northern Chinese and Sichuan cuisine, including hearty meat soups and stews, grilled meats and flavors imbued with smoke and plenty of spice.
The first question one should ask oneself when dining here is: “Can you handle the heat?”
If the answer is no, don’t stop reading just yet — there are plenty of milder dishes to be found and the kitchen is amenable to dialing the spice down wherever requested.
But the most memorable meals here might very well leave your mouth on fire.
Take the smashed cucumber salad ($9.44), where even the cooling chunks of cucumber can’t compete with the heat imparted by the tumble of bright red chile peppers on the plate. Still, it’s one of the best versions of the dish in town — crunchy with roasted peanuts and sesame seeds, showered in cilantro.
The second question is: “How do you feel about offal?”
If organ meats aren’t your thing, that’s OK. But if you’re a fan, you’ll find much to like here. The menu includes everything from a barbecued bull’s heart to duck blood and tripe stew, fried pork intestines and animal parts ranging from necks to gizzards, feet and heads — a real smorgasbord of odd bits and ends.
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Though these may not speak to the more timid diner’s palate, I’d suggest dipping your toe in wherever comfortable: The grilled chicken hearts ($5.99) were particularly tasty, rubbed in a delicious cumin seed and chile pepper rub. Also good is the pig’s ear salad ($12.99), a cool and gelatinous bundle interspersed with spears of cucumber and peanuts for crunch. And though the salt and pepper fried bullfrog wasn’t for me (too many bones), the crispy-fried bits really did taste a lot like chicken ($23.99).
But back to the spice: Sichuan peppercorns anchor many a plate here, along with the characteristic mouth-numbing heat they’re known for.
There’s the spicy boiled beef ($19.94), a stewlike dish where thick strips of beef arrive bobbing in a crimson broth, heavy with chiles, garlic and onions. Fried prawns ($23.09) are served shell-, head- and tail-on in a spicy, crunchy crust, sidling thick slices of red onions and green peppers. Whatever you do, don’t skip the cumin lamb ($19.94), where tender strips of lamb arrive swathed in a fiery sauce studded with chiles, onions and scallions.
The showstopper is a whole fried fish, which is served splayed out in a giant silver serving dish, swimming in a vat of chile-spiked broth. It’s the restaurant’s specialty, and for good reason — the fish is fantastic. Salty, crispy-fried edges are tucked under a garnish of roasted peanuts and cilantro — underneath, there’s tender, flaky white fish and a red-hot sauce that’s good enough to drink. (The generous portion is also enough to feed a family of six.)
There are dishes that will appeal to milder palates, like the pan-fried dumplings ($10.99) filled with pork and cabbage, and the crispy sweet and sour pork ($20.99). And though Flaming Mountain is comfortable territory for carnivores, there are several vegetarian dishes that vie for the spotlight, including the excellent mapo tofu ($13), featuring silky cubes of tofu jiggling in a lip-tingling sauce.
A much milder vegetarian feast can be found in the cold noodle salad ($13.64), which features thick sheets of glass noodles paired with a bouquet of julienned vegetables — carrots, cucumbers, Chinese black fungus (a mushroom also known as tree ear or cloud ear fungus) — and shredded strips of tofu skin. The whole thing is served with a creamy, punchy garlic and sesame sauce for dressing.
The restaurant’s name nods to the long list of grilled meat, seafood and vegetable skewers on the menu, inspired by the street barbecue vendors found all over China, including Shenyang. Guests can pick from a sizable variety of skewers, all of which are heady with the flavors of cumin, chile and toasted fennel seed. The soft and fatty pork belly (three skewers for $6.29) and deeply flavorful lamb (three for $7.34) are both very good. There’s also an entire eggplant ($7.34), which is delivered glistening with chile oil, sporting griddled flesh so soft it’s almost puddinglike. And if you dare to order the barbecued oyster ($6.29), you’ll be rewarded with a smoky bivalve the size of your hand (no, really), sprinkled with garlic and green onions.
These dishes and so many more make Flaming Mountain one of the most unique and exciting restaurants in Tampa right now. Zhang’s cooking presents an opportunity to explore and savor bold techniques and flavors that surprise and delight. And for some, a meal here just might offer a welcome chance to step outside their comfort zone.
If you go
Where: 13520 University Plaza St., Tampa. 813-609-8888. flamingmountainchinese.com.
Hours: Lunch, dinner 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Monday, Wednesday through Sunday.
Prices: Appetizers, $8 to $17; entrees, $18 to $40.
Don’t skip: Cucumber salad, mapo tofu, cumin lamb.
Details: Wheelchair accessible. Credit cards and cash accepted. Some vegetarian options.