People told John Zhao he was crazy to put an upscale Chinese restaurant in east Tampa.
But in the two months since Yummy House China Bistro opened on Hillsborough Avenue, some 300 customers a day are proving Zhao is not only sane, but possibly brilliant.
"It's going unbelievable,'' says the 31-year-old restaurateur, who co-owns the original Yummy House on west Waters Avenue with executive chef Tommy Tang.
So much so, the pair is opening yet another eatery, the Country Pumpkin Café, beside the bistro. Look for a third Yummy House in Clearwater in the coming months.
Can there really be this much demand for Chinese food?
On a recent Wednesday evening, Zhao counted 293 customers. Lunchtime, he says, typically has a 30-minute wait. And almost every weekend, large parties are booking the venue for special celebrations.
Most customers, he says, are regulars who got hooked on the first Yummy House, a tiny strip-mall restaurant with a cult-like following that prodded Zhao to search for bigger, fancier digs.
He complied with a stand-alone building in a part of town better known for the Fun Land Drive-In, Erwin Technical Center and Sanwa Farmers Market.
I visited for the first time on a Friday for take out. Although it was barely 6 p.m., the bistro was full.
Attentive waiters quickly greeted me from behind a huge bar where stemware glowed like a rainbow thanks to strategically placed lights.
I searched a menu with nearly 200 items and, feeling overwhelmed, chose a few familiar faces like Wonton Soup and Sweet and Sour Shrimp.
Having heard high praise for the Salt and Pepper Calamari, I chose the appetizer along with another soup, the Japanese Style Udon with seafood and the Hong Kong Style Pan Fried Noodle.
My order was filled promptly and correctly, with extra attention on ensuring I had everything I needed.
At home, some of us loved the calamari. It was tender and flavorful, but I wasn't bowled over by the thick batter.
We found the Wonton Soup had a beautiful, clear broth with thick, medium-sized pork-filled dumplings.
The Japanese Style Udon was out-of-this-world yummy, packed with fat, flat noodles and colossal crustaceans, scallops and fish. Both soups were enough for two meals.
The Sweet and Sour Shrimp featured those gorgeous tender shrimp flown in from New York and lightly fried before being bathed in a sweet, fruity, reddish orange sauce.
The Hong Kong Style Pan Fried Noodle was the favorite, tiny noodles topped with more scrumptious seafood and egg.
On a return visit, we sat in the dining room the very evening Zhao said he served nearly 300 customers.
Maybe that explains the somewhat confusing service. Our waiter said he was new and didn't speak much English. It made for some difficult communication.
That was quickly rectified, though, with help from two other waiters and Zhao, who clearly is very hands on.
We started with the Pan Fried Pot Stickers, large dumplings stuffed with pork that appeared more steamed than fried. No matter, they were delicious.
We also ordered a satisfying bowl of the Crab Meat Corn Soup that fed three of us with plenty to take home.
Spicy Grouper with Eggplant in Clay Pot came with succulently prepared grouper, but not so spicy.
Then came the Sizzling Honey Pepper Scallop, gigantic scallops in a pleasantly sweet sauce surrounded by vegetables fresh from Sanwa and plated on a skillet.
But our top choice was the Singapore Style Rice Noodle, skinny noodles topped with seafood and vegetables, and a slightly spicy curry sauce.
The newest Yummy House is a little pricier than the original; dinner for three with sake and dessert was about $95 including tip.
But it's a small price to pay for consistently delicious Chinese food.
Yummy House China Bistro
Bottom Line: Upscale Hong Kong-style Chinese food in a sleek, new venue
Where: 2620 E. Hillsborough Ave., Tampa
Hours: Open daily, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., lunch; 5 to 10 p.m., dinner
Credit Cards: All major
Reservations: Yes, a day in advance recommended for weekends
Children's Menu: No
Alcohol: Beer and wine
Wheelchair Access: Yes
Price: Entrees range from $7.99 to $32
Call: (813) 237-3838