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Sep 3, 2007 10:06 AM

P. F. Chang's -- a Chowhound perspective

If you are lucky enough to live in New York City or Los Angeles, you probably wouldn't go to P F Chang's even if it opened a branch next door to you. But if you have to spend a lot of time in a place like Tulsa, as I did, you'll probably go there a lot.

Don't think of P F Chang's as an authentic Chinese restaurant. If you do, you will be so busy spotting errors in their preparation that you won't find time to enjoy your meal. Think of it as Chinese-inspired American food. If you do that, you will find plenty to like. Yes, some of the dishes are "dumbed down" for American tastes. Some have more sugar than they should. But many are not, even when you'd expect them to be. No gloppy sauce drowning your meat and veggies. Usually, there's only enough sauce to coat the meat. Some dishes use fermented black beans to give a strong funky flavor which I adore but which would have many a picky American eater screaming "Ewwwww" And they've even come up with a few good innovations. They marinate the beef in the American Chinese classic "beef with broccoli", yielding a richer flavor. Sometimes they char beef or lamb on a wok to give it a barbecue flavor. They add melon balls to the HK fave of shrimp with candied walnuts in mayonnaise sauce. I had lamb with cumin there a year before I found it in remote Sichuan restaurants in Queens. They even added a touich of mint, a welcome innovation. (Unfortunately, they later changed the recipe, added sugar and cut down on the cumin.) One of their best dishes is "hot fish"... fish filet pieces coated in potato starch, then gently stir-fried with snow peas with a tiny bit of a clear, tart sauce I've never found in a Chinese restaurant.

The good news about P F Chang's is that it proves that Americans are prepared to pay high prices to eat Chinese food in an elegant setting. The bad news is that you won't see a single Chinese face, either at the front of the house or in the kitchen.

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  1. Great assessment! I'm in LA and you pretty much hit the nail on the head. But this aversion to PF Chang's applies to those who for whatever reason have been lucky enough to have enjoyed great Chinese cuisine. I think the vast majority of Angelenos still prefer either the gloppy stuff or PF Chang's that (as you've mentioned) is Chinese-inspired American.

    I don't think there's anything wrong with places like PF Chang's. I applaud any place that serves up good food, no matter if it's a chain or non-chain, authentic or inspired. Just bring on the good food, fair service and don't stick me too hard on the tab.

    Oh yes, I forgot to mention - I always give extra regular patronage points if the business is a good community/corporate citizen...

    1 Reply
    1. re: bulavinaka

      Outback Steakhouse is a good community/corporate citizen and very giving. I applaud them for that. They have been very generous with food and volunteer hours with fund raisers for Big Brothers and Big Sisters and Casa which is a child advocacy program in the courts here. I have volunteered to go in and wait tables with their volunteer crew, the company I was with was also into the same sort of thing and having logged may hours with a tray in another time I could be trusted. But going and eating there as an option when there is so much better to choose from is just not going to happen. I will go to the fund raisers and eat the food but it is just not a place that I would choose if there were other options.

    2. Kind of like the comment I've made to good meals at Americanized Chinese restaurants, "It's good, but is it Chinese?" Quite a dilemma to be a Chinese food lover where the authentic stuff is not available--I'm not sure whether I'd suck it up and go to the best available alternative or skip it altogether. While I'm not one of those who need their daily intake of rice, it would get to me after a while. I'd probably look for the local Cantonese food outlet (amazing how these places are spread out all over the country) and order the fried rice or something that's difficult to mess up.

      1. Have you heard of Pei Wei? Supose to be a PFC knock-off. I was told that its one of the partners of PFChangs.Is it true? I like the food but the dipping sauce for the lettuce wraps are yuck.

        2 Replies
        1. re: Shaylala

          Pei Wei is the quick service version of PFC and is owned by them.

          1. re: Texchef

            PF Changs owns Pei Wei. I like PF Changs. Can't stand Pei Wei.

        2. I have said it before and I'll say it again. I actually like P.F. Changs! Although for me I see it as an alternative to the mall food court. I love the lettuce wraps, and the Mao Pao Tofu, the mongolian beef is pretty good too. I especially like their pots of tea. Yes it's "inauthentic" and the sauce they mix for you when you first sit down is a cheesy touch. However, in todays day and age when "fusion food" is so pervasive, it's just silly to use the inauthenticity (as many seem to do) as an excuse for not liking it!

          17 Replies
            1. re: Texchef

              yes your right about no chinese faces in the place.However,I have seen chinese and other orientals at some of the local chinese buffets like China Harbour and China Seas here in San Antonio and at the regular restaurants in town.

              1. re: HollyDolly

                Thats because chinese people wont over pay for something they can get for better. Buffets are cheap and perhaps cheaper than PFC.

                1. re: DarthEater

                  Valid point. Many Chinese diners prefer bad Chinese food to any version of non-Chinese food. This is best demonstrated by the packaged tours put together in Chinatown for Chinese Americans going to such destinations like Europe and other non-Asian countries, where all the meals consist of Chinese food. Personally I have no interest in going to Spain, Switzerland or Austria to eat the local Chinese food, which in most cases is probably highly inauthentic. Yet the Chinatown based tours, as well as those organized out of China itself, uniformly stick to the all Chinese food diet. Now expensive inauthentic Chinese food is something else. That's why you will seldom see Chinese at P.F. Chang's.

                  1. re: Chandavkl

                    I have a work colleague like that. He can't eat anything without rice but hates most of the Asian-inspired places we go to.

                    My grandparents are Italian and refuse to pay a lot of money to go out to eat. Where do they go? Macaroni Grill to order the salad and calamari or occasional simple order of something else so that they can complain about it. The ONLY other place they'll eat out is at a chinese buffet. "you get to see the food first."

                    1. re: fara

                      I give anyone over 65/depression era type a break on the only certain foods, especially people with an ethnic background that values food. That said, sometimes it defies logic but someone else paying (and not letting them see the bill) does wonders.

                      1. re: ML8000

                        my grandfather's 90th birthday is coming up. I suppose we could call ahead to a good place and choose a pre-set menu? we don't live in the same state as them, but I could check on FL board. thanks for the inspiration :)

                        1. re: fara

                          Haha...that's the way to go, nice thinking. It doesn't really need to be that fancy. I know it's the same with my Dad. He'll drop for a Chinese restaurant but his idea of "American" food is Hometown Buffet (even if he was born in Chicago)....then you bring him somewhere nice and he surprised!

                2. re: HollyDolly

                  When I said no Chinese faces, I meant that every waiter, every chef and sous chef and kitchen employee is Caucasian or African-American or Hispanic.

                  1. re: Brian S

                    So many "ethnic" restaurants in So Cal of every stripe have all-Hispanic kitchens. The front of the house may look Thai, Italian, etc but poke your head in the kitchen and it is like Guadalajara back there.

                    1. re: Snackish

                      I don't think that this is true of Asian restaurants in New York, but for high end fine dining it would be hard to find a single restaurant in NY that doesn't have a Mexican or Ecuadorian line chef. Tony Bourdain wrote that he prefered them to a top CIA grad because the CIA grad can't resist tinkering with the recipes, whereas the Ecuadorian, though he might be equally talented, won't tinker without the boss's permission.

              2. re: SweetPea914

                I only went to PF Changs once, and the prices were a LOT higher than at any mall food court I've ever been in. One visit isn't enough to get a complete picture, but I thought everything tasted the same, with a kind of nasty barbecue sauce flavor. Give me some food court bourbon chicken any day and at less than half the price.

                1. re: SweetPea914

                  SweetPea, I think we live in the same area - do you go to the P.F. Changs in White Plains? I wonder if ours is better than some of the other locations, because I've always enjoyed it too. I'd rather have chicken that looks like it came from a fresh chicken breast, rather than gristly, greasy, questionable meat that we get at your basic corner Chinese restaurant around here. If that means they're dumbing it down for my American taste, so be it.

                  1. re: shellyesq

                    Shellyesq- Yup, the White Plains location is the one I go to. I totally agree with you. The meat always looks like a relatively quality piece and not some unidentifiable gristly thing that you get at some "hole-in-the-wall" places. I wonder how much the quality changes from location to location? As a chain, I would imagine they would all use the same distributors, but what do I know?? Also maybe the amount of sauce changes by chef and geographical area?
                    I was first introduced to PF Changs at the Roosevelt Field Mall location (or is it by Fortunoff down the street?) by my BFF who lives on Long Island and I liked that one as well. I have never seen the gloppy/sugary sauces people talk about, maybe it's what I order?
                    Believe me, I'm all about "authentic" Asian. When living on the UES my husband and I often trekked down to Chinatown because we love the food, culture, markets, etc. However, I still like PFC for what it is.

                    To adress what Emm said above, I have never thought all the food tastes the same, in fact I find everything quite unique. Yes, the prices are much higher than the mall food court, But you are also paying for service and a restuarant that's been sitting at a kiosk all day! So, in addition to the better food, at the risk of sounding like a princess, after a day of shopping and carrying bags, pushing a stroller, etc I don't want to try to balance a tray, then find a seat at a usually dirty table. I much prefer to sit, relax and enjoy a decent meal. Unless of course I just blew my budget shopping!

                    1. re: SweetPea914

                      SweetPea, if you do go for the food court at the Westchester, check out Desert Moon Cafe. They have decent Tex-Mex (although they took the quesadilla I liked off the menu...grrrr), the entrees are made to order, and the guacamole is surprisingly tasty. But, yeah, it can be a battle to find a semi-clean table.

                      1. re: shellyesq

                        Thanks so much for the tip. I'll definitely check it out! I haven't been to the food court in years (probably 10) but I do remember it being cleaner at the Westchester than most!

                  2. re: SweetPea914

                    You raise a good point re the mall food court. For all the haters, you've gotta admit PF Chang's is way better than mall food court Chinese food.

                  3. Gotta love the PFC threads when they come up. The biggest trouble with PFC is they are one of the biggest targets out there! For many Americans, PFC is the ultimate in Chinese food which drives many Chowhounds near insane. I like PFC and I like local stuff, but for different reasons. As much as I like my local place, it is not a fancy place for dates and impress the client/family/firends restaurant. They serve a lot of very good entrees at PFC, and I have never had a bad meal there.

                    I do appreciate the summary above since it echos what has been debated before. My philosophy is to abandon any pretense about what a certain cuisine should be and just enjoy restaurants for what they are. PFC is in that 2nd Standard Deviation above-average restaurant category for Asian-style food in my book - not the best, but still pretty darn good, especially in Tulsa.

                    Also, in many places, the proverbial hole-in-the-wall Chinese place either does not exist or has long ago Americanized all their food to stay in business. Only in places with high levels of Asian customers can support more authentic food.