Tampa – The scent of smoke and spice fills the room, tickling the back of your throat with an exhilarating note: chili peppers, cumin, Sichuan peppers, and grilled meats.
Then there are the sounds.
At the back of the restaurant, in the kitchen, there is the hissing and crackling of meat on the grill. Outside in the dining room – for the amusement and entertainment of customers – a 4-year-old boy is chanting “Baby Shark” to a microphone, aided by a quick karaoke background.
This is the Flaming Mountain Chinese Grill & Skewer Bar, a new Chinese restaurant in Tampa and a supplier 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 mall off E Fletcher Avenue, near the University of South Florida campus in Tampa. The kitchen is run by Chef Wei Zhang, who previously worked at restaurants in New York City.
Originally from Shenyang, the capital of northeastern China’s Liaoning Province, Li Wu Wu’s cooking here emphasizes the distinct flavors of both North Chinese and Sichuan cuisine, including delicious meat soups, stews, grilled meats, smoky flavors, and much more. spices;
The first question one should ask themselves when dining here is: “Can you handle the heat?”
If the answer is no, don’t stop reading now – there are plenty of mild dishes to be found and the kitchen is squeezable for seasoning on demand.
But the most memorable meals here may leave your mouth burning.
Take the Cucumber Mashed Salad ($9.44), for example, where even refrigerated cucumber chunks can’t compete with the heat from sauteing the bright red peppers on the plate. However, it’s one of the best versions of the dish in town – crunchy with roasted peanuts and sesame seeds, dipped in coriander.
The second question is: “How do you feel about hangovers?”
If organ meats aren’t your thing, that’s fine. But if you are a fan, you will find a lot to like here. The menu includes everything from roasted ox heart to duck blood and tripe soup, fried pork intestines and animal parts ranging from necks to gizzards, feet and heads – a veritable assortment of exotic bits and ends.
Dive into the food and drink scenes of Tampa Bay
Subscribe to Taste’s free newsletter
Get the restaurant and bar news, insights and reviews you crave from food and dining critic Helen Freund every Thursday.
You are all registered!
Want more of our free weekly newsletter in your inbox? Let’s get started.
Explore all your options
While these may not speak to timid dinner tasters, I’d suggest dipping your toe anywhere comfortably: Grilled chicken hearts ($5.99) were particularly delicious, rubbed in flavorful cumin seeds and a chili rub. Also good is the pig’s ear salad ($12.99), a cold, gelatinous package dotted with spears of cucumber and peanuts for crunch. And while the salt-and-pepper fried frog didn’t work for me (lots of bones), the crispy fried chops tasted like chicken ($23.99).
But back to the spice: Sichuan peppercorns anchor many dishes here, along with the distinctive mouth-numbing heat for which they are famous.
There’s the Spicy Boiled Beef ($9.94), a hearty dish where thick slices of beef arrive in a crimson broth, filled with chili, garlic, and onions. Fried prawns ($23.09) from shell, head, and tail are served in a crunchy, spicy crust and thick slices of red onion and green pepper. Whatever you do, don’t miss the Cumin Lamb ($19.94), where tender lamb chops arrive covered in a fiery sauce studded with chili, onions, and green onions.
The showstopper is a whole fried fish, served in a giant silver serving dish, swimming in a bowl of chile broth. It’s the specialty of the restaurant, and for good reason – the fish is great. Salty and crunchy fried edges are tucked away under a garnish of roasted peanuts and cilantro—underneath there’s flaky, tender white fish and just enough spicy red sauce to drink. (The generous portion is also enough to feed a family of six.)
There are dishes that appeal to milder palates, such as fried dumplings ($10.99) filled with pork and cabbage, and crispy sweet and sour pork ($20.99). And while Flaming Mountain is a comfort zone for carnivores, there are many vegetarian dishes vying for the spotlight, including the premium Mapo Tofu ($13), which features silky cubes of tofu in a lip-smacking sauce.
A milder vegetarian feast can be found in Cold Noodle Salad ($13.64), which features thick sheets of glass noodles paired with a bouquet of flowering vegetables—carrots, cucumbers, oolong (a mushroom also known as tree ear or cloud ear fungus)—and slices. Torn from the skin of the tofu. Everything is served with creamy garlic and sesame sauce for seasoning.
The restaurant’s name refers to the long list of grilled meats, seafood and vegetable skewers on the menu, inspired by the street barbecue vendors found throughout China, including Shenyang. Guests can choose from a large variety of skewers, all infused with flavors of cumin, chile, and toasted fennel seeds. Lean and fatty pork belly (three skewers for $6.29) and savory lamb (three for $7.34) are both very good. There’s also a whole eggplant ($7.34), which is delivered shimmering in chile oil, and the roast sports a meat so sporty that it’s almost pudding-like. And if you dare order grilled oysters ($6.29), you’ll be rewarded with smoked bivalves the size of your hand (no, really), sprinkled with garlic and green onions.
These dishes and many more make Flaming Mountain one of the most unique and exciting restaurants in Tampa right now. Zhang’s cooking offers an opportunity to explore and savor bold techniques and flavors that surprise and delight. For some, a meal here may provide a welcome opportunity to step out of their comfort zone.
if you go
where: 13520 University St. Plaza Tampa. 813-609-8888. flamingmountainchinese.com.
hours: Lunch and dinner from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday and Wednesday through Sunday.
the prices: Appetizers, $8 to $17; Entrees, $18 to $40.
Don’t skip: Cucumber salad, mapo tofu, lamb with cumin.
details: Accessibility facilities for the disabled. Credit cards and cash are accepted. Some vegetarian options.