The foodie rumor mill has been abuzz with the news of a new Chinese restaurant that might rival Yummy House and China Yuan -- Tampa's two uncontested rulers of that particular Asian cuisine. Will Chopstix up the ante and give our humble city a third option for scintillating, traditional Chinese food?
Chopstix has a good pedigree. Although it's owner Stan Du's first restaurant, he has worked at TC Choy in Tampa and ABC Seafood in Pinellas. Choy serves very tasty, if dumbed-down, food, while ABC is a perennial third wheel on the Bay area Chinese bus, its exceptional seafood always falling a step or two behind China Yuan and Yummy.
One glance at the menu and it's clear that Chopstix takes after ABC much more than Choy. There's a big focus on seafood, from clams and squid to shrimp and grouper. There are classic sauces, like the XO done so well by Yummy House, and the black bean sauce executed nicely at China Yuan. And, to cap it all off, there's a litany of animal body parts -- intestine, tendon, feet, maw, bone -- that distinguishes real Chinese restaurants from the Westernized pretenders.
Sounds promising, but in execution, Chopstix doesn't quite have the chops to make it in the big leagues. Even so, the restaurant is miles ahead of the typical corner takeout joint. Roast pork ($5.95) slices are sweet and smoky, tinged with five-spice powder and tender enough to fall apart when they hit your mouth. Duck buns ($5.95) are gooey and ethereally soft, with just enough barbecued bird to set off the sweetness of the dough.
Our server asked "you sure?" when we ordered the appetizer platter ($16.95), which contains chicken feet, pork and duck tendon, jelly fish and squid -- five items that you won't find on the table at most restaurants. Although I'd like to be Mister Eat-It-All, gnawing on cold, gelatinized chicken skin, fat and cartilage disturbs me. Doesn't mean I don't like to have it sitting on the table and encourage my friends to give it a go. Call it a friendly gag. Literally, sometimes.
All the items on the platter are served cold, which pretty much only helps the long strands of translucent, sweet jellyfish. The thin slices of beef tendon were packed with more cow flavor per square inch than your favorite steak, but the pork was a bit tough to get down. Something about cold fat, cold pork and cold connective tissue just clamps my throat shut.
Best of the selection was thin, candied strands of squid coated in spices and chile. Perfectly chewy, briny and spicy, I can see serving them in big bowls at a cocktail party or as a garnish to a funky dessert.
Some of the starters I didn't like, but I know that's in part due to my Western limitations. All of these rustic Chinese dishes were good, and gave me hope for the main courses. Sadly, it didn't pan out.
XO sauce is a Hong Kong creation that's only about 20 years old, but it has already become a classic. At its best, the silky stuff is loaded with pungent, dried seafood, chile and garlic. It's hard to detect any of that in the featureless XO beef ($10.95) served at Chopstix.
That's a trend that carries over across the entrees: bland black bean sauce seemingly devoid of the powerful, salty flavor of fermented soy; salt-and-pepper seafood with little punch of garlic or chile; a hot pot ($9.95) loaded with eggplant, salt fish and chicken but with little flavor. Despite that lack of oomph, all the dishes were cooked just right -- especially the steamy, comforting hot-pot stews. There's just no there there.
I did get to try crispy milk shrimp ($13.95), something I'd never had before. Crunchy fried shrimp are tossed in a thick, slightly sweet sauce derived from reduced coconut milk. Nothing special, but the accompanying breaded, deep-fried strawberry custard was surprisingly tasty. Where else will you get bok choy laced with reduced soy, fried shrimp coated in sweet milk and deep-fried strawberry mush on a single plate?
Those strawberry balls also signal the best path to satisfaction at Chopstix: Order from the dim sum menu. The buns -- especially those stuffed with bits of meat -- are damn tasty, as are delicate steamed shrimp dumplings ($2.95). Fried shrimp balls ($2.25) are bigger than a baby's fist and better than the dumplings, and the rice rolls seem to hoard much of the flavor left off the entrees. Chow mein is standard, but the barbecued duck ($5.95) rivals China Yuan's.
Right now Chopstix has no beer and wine license, but management is working on it. In the meantime, they'll bring you chilled glasses for your BYOB six-pack or wine glasses for your bottle of gewürztraminer. It's a nice touch that can make up for the occasional slow service when the place gets a little busy.
So sure, Chopstix won't be much of a rival to the area's reigning kings of Chinese cuisine, but that doesn't mean it isn't a fine place to gnaw on a chicken foot and down dumplings and buns that are better than most.
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