Heading to P.F. Chang’s one evening, my son loudly proclaimed that he didn’t want any “Chinese, Thai, Vietnamese or other Asian food.” I wasn’t worried. I explained to him that P.F. Chang’s is Asian food for people who don’t normally like Asian food.
A simplification, sure, but the spirit is spot-on. P.F. Chang’s is a very popular national chain with locations blanketing the U.S. and 13 other countries as far flung as Bahrain and Argentina. How did it become so popular featuring cuisine that references a panopoly of pan-Asian influences? Easy, just follow the chain food formula.
That means rough edges and sharp flavors are sanded down to a comfortable uniformity; fat, salt and sugar are used in abundance; and there is a solid consistency to what comes out of the kitchen that encourages people to make multiple visits.
This isn’t much of a criticism. It’s just the fact of life for a restaurant with millions of potential customers.
The new P.F. Chang’s in downtown Sarasota is beautiful, with a combination of natural materials, high ceilings, plenty of windows and high-end decor that sets it apart from more kitschy restaurant chains. There’s also a thriving bar along one wall, the back of which opens onto a wrap-around outdoor patio. The drinks are tasty, with interesting specialty cocktails, a decent sake selections, a few craft brews and a small but well-chosen wine list.
P.F. Chang’s menu starts with a pan-Asian greatest hits – dumplings to wontons, spring rolls to spare ribs – but most people should (and often do) start with the restaurant’s signature lettuce wraps ($8.95). The concept is simple: a few veggies, ground chicken (or tofu) and a sweet and salty sauce tossed in the wok and served with a stack of lettuce leaves and some fried rice sticks. The soft, sweet filling matches the cool, crisp lettuce and crunchy rice sticks to make for simple flavors and contrasting textures. Tasty.
Green beans ($6.95) are tempura-battered and deep fried, then served with rich, mayo-based sauce with a tiny hint of spice. P.F. Chang’s wonton soup ($3.50) is simple and refreshing and the salads are all loaded with fresh veggies and mild dressings accented with soy and sesame.
You can sum up many of the entrees by imagining your favorite Chinese takeout dish as if it were made with better ingredients by more practiced and refined chefs, but there are a few standouts.
Thinly sliced beef is seared crisp with broccolini and onions and tossed with a sweet and tart citrus sauce in the shaking beef ($15.95), while P.F. Chang’s lo mein ($9.95) is tender and perfectly seasoned, with meat cut into nicely manageable thin strips that make it into each bite.
P.F. Chang’s does a great job with seafood, especially its Oolong Chilean sea bass ($24.95). The exterior is crisp and glazed with sweet ginger and soy, the interior buttery and cooked to the ideal temperature. It’s a dish that could easily appear in any fine-dining spot, even counting the watery and bland spinach side.
Hunan-style Alaskan cod ($15.95) is more in keeping with the rest of the menu, the fish sliced into small discs, battered and deep-fried and tossed with a sweet and mild chili sauce that makes the whole thing a bit oily and rich.
There’s a variety of other noodle dishes, fried rice, more shrimp and fish creations, vegetarian and gluten-free options and plenty more, a hefty menu that tries to cover everyone’s needs.
It’s early days yet for P.F. Chang’s, so you can excuse the overly ebullient serving staff that tends to mob your table and persists in sticking to memorized interactions that can overwhelm diners – chances are the servers are tested on their ability to execute the chain’s standards. On the other side of the coin, you’ll never want for anything at the table.
You can plan on waiting an hour or more for that table at P.F. Chang’s, depending on when you go, but here’s a pro-tip – the bar tables are first-come first-served, so feel free to sidle over and nab one of the high-tops on the patio to the right.
After eating a few times at P.F. Chang’s, a friend asked me what to expect.
“Is it like the Outback of Asian restaurants?” he asked.
“No, it’s nicer than that,” I replied.
“Oh,” he said, “it’s the Bonefish Grill of Asian restaurants.”