For Whom the Wontons
PF Changs, chinese food
With dozens of branches from coast to coast, from Boston to Boca Raton and Bethesda to Bellevue (including some two dozen in California, most notably the newest operation in the Paseo Colorado, where it's consistently the restaurant with the longest wait), along with a listing on NASDAQ, it's time to stop viewing the PF Chang's China Bistro chain as a clever novelty (born in the very non-Asian enclave of Scottsdale, Arizona in 1993) – a clever attempt at creating an authentic Chinese restaurant in a user-friendly setting that won't scare away those who find Monterey Park a little too real. In a very real sense, PF Chang's is how many American perceive Chinese food. It may not be as ubiquitous as the Panda Inn chain. But it also comes across as more serious in terms of its cuisine. Chang's is the bellwether for where we're going, en masse, in terms of the diverse cooking of China. Though the menu isn't large at Chang's (it's something of a greatest hits list, offering just 65 dishes – positively minimalist in terms of local Chinese restaurants), with a Pan-China selection of dishes from Canton, Shanghai, Szechwan, Hunan and Mongolia. This is a Chinese restaurant for those who want cloth napkins, waiters who ask if they're enjoying their meal, a glass of something other than generic white wine poured from a gallon bottle.
At PF Chang's, the style is brisk, breezy, open, light and very, well, California. If anything, this is a child of Chinois on Main, with its seats at the kitchen counter, allowing diners to spend a pleasant evening watching the chefs do what they do.
In terms of food, PF Chang's walks a careful line between the masses and the cognoscenti. On the one hand, there are such safe dishes as beef, pork, chicken and shrimp chow mein – a perfectly decent chow mein, and a reminder of the pleasures of the solid, filling chow so many of us grew up with during the Great Chop Suey Panic of the '50s and '60s. There's fried rice (once again made with beef, pork, chicken and shrimp), chow fun (chicken or beef), wonton soup, even sweet & sour pork.
On the other hand, dumplings abound, pleasantly light, filled with bunches of stuff more easily identified by their labels than their flavors – Peking-based pork dumplings both panfried and steamed, vegetable dumplings both ditto, steamed shrimp dumplings, red sauce wontons filled with shrimp and pork. There used to be an appetizer variation on the whole baked shrimp in spicy salt, retitled salt & pepper shrimp, which has been replaced with salt & pepper calamari, a culinary cognate of calamari fritti, only a lot spicier.
It's hard to do a meal at Chang's without an order of the garlic noodles and/or the dan dan noodles, which are made with scallions, garlic, chilies and chicken, and always remind me of a Chinese version of Cobb salad – whatever's sitting about in the kitchen seems to go right in. The menu has evolved very slowly since Chang's first opened – they got it right the first time around, and haven't messed with it a lot since then. In fact, some months ago, they were so excited to be adding a handful of vegetarian dishes to the menu, a press release was sent out to announce the event in stentorian tones.
Datelined "Phoenix, Arizona," under a headline reading: "New Vegetarian Dishes Wok On To Menu... PF Chang's Adds Seven New Classics Including Four True Vegetarian Dishes," the restaurant declaimed that, "Menu development is a continual process at PF Chang's. We want to keep our menu fresh and interesting for our guests...These new menu items, developed by our team of culinary partners, are inspired by traditional Chinese recipes and like the rest of our menu are representative of the different types of regional cuisine found in China." I expected to hear herald angels playing, as they announced the addition of vegetable chow fun, long beans with tofu and yellow chives, ma po tofu, coconut-curry vegetables, the venerable moo goo gai pan (chicken and shrimp), crispy catfish in Szechuan sauce, scallion pancakes, and mu shu pancakes seasoned with green onions and Szechwan pepper and salt.
The thing about PF Chang's that I like the most, is that they have such a clear sense of who they are, and what they're about. Their online corporate statement declare that, "At PF Chang’s we offer intensely flavored, highly memorable culinary creations, prepared from the freshest ingredients, including premium herbs and spices imported directly from China. Our menu offers an array of taste, texture, color and aroma."
All of which is nice Corporate Speak. But they really get down to it in the next paragraph: "Enjoy a fine glass of wine from our extensive wine list and be sure to save room for our wonderful American desserts. Treat yourself to savory sweets such as New York Style Cheesecake, the Great Wall of Chocolate -- six layers of sinfully rich chocolate cake -- and the Temple of Heaven -- a flourless chocolate espresso dome adorned with fresh seasonal berries Round out your experience with a cappuccino, espresso or after dinner liquor."
Which is one big reason that there's a permanent wait at the new PF Chang's in Paseo Colorado. What we have here is a Chinese-American restaurant that isn't the same as the Chinese-American restaurants of the '50s and '60s. This is very much a Chinese-American restaurant for the '00s – slick, medium cool, edgy, with something other than fortune cookies and almond cookies for dessert. Chang's offers very good Chinese food – indeed, there are dishes that border on excellent, no small accomplishment for a restaurant that's aimed at the non-Asian masses. (Sea slug would not go over well at Chang's!) The menu is lean and efficient, as is the service. The decor, on the other hand, is pure Hollywood – hyper-graphics, over-sized sculptures, a sense of being inside a video game.
It's interesting: I spend a lot of time being the only Anglo in the Chinese restaurants of Monterey Park. By all rights, I should be sneering at PF Chang's, dismissing it as chow mainly for the masses. And yet, I always eat well here. I also always eat too much – given a good Chardonnay, the temptation to indulge is irresistible. PF Chang's sits on an edge of its own making; it's both hip and family friendly. Whoever those "culinary partners" are, they know for whom the wontons.