FOOD BITES - In the Kitchen :: PF Chang Chinese Bistro
PF Changs is an upscale Chinese dining experience and the largest Chinese restaurant chain in the US. They focus on using the freshest ingredients and preparing food to order, served hot, family style, with both white and brown rice. Sharing entrees is encouraged. Each table setup includes a combination of ingredients which your server turns into a sauce to your taste. This is not the typical neighborhood Chinese restaurant you might be used to. Average per person cost (lunch & dinner combined) is $19 with beverage, before tax and gratuities.
In March I traveled with the co-founder, artist P. Chaing, and three executive chefs, to the old Portuguese colony of Macau, on the coast of China. Our mission was to explore Macanese cuisine - the original Asian fusion food - to find recipes to adapt for their US restaurants. (SEE: Macau FOOD BITES) Look for the Macanese dishes to debut this Fall. (HINT: That African Chicken is a WINNER!) Last year the group went to the Yunnan Province and returned with four delicious recipes, some of which I recently had the opportunity to taste.
Most of the 150+ PF Changs are located in upscale malls. On a typical Sunday the one I visited in the Eastview Mall in Victor, New York, (Finger Lakes / Rochester area) averages over 1000 guests and over 4000 plates. Reservations are suggested, but walk-ins are given a pager and sent into the mall to shop while waiting for a table, which averages about 45 minutes. There is mall-provided valet parking ($5) in front, and room to pick up your take-out.
Over the last year they’ve seen a 45% increase in take-out orders. Their new chain of take-out restaurants called PEI WEI is for just such times when you don’t have an occasion, but you still want good Chinese Food.
Overall - PF Changs Chinese Bistro is an attractively decorated restaurant, with nice ambiance and beautifully presented fresh food that tastes great. Definitely eat here!
Al Pagliano & Chef Dave Keiter walked me through their PF Changs restaurant. I got to see their freezer, (tiny) their walk-in cooler (bigger than a NYC apartment) and photograph their whole kitchen process - before I videotaped Chef Dave cooking my meal! (My job is so cool.) Then I sat down to share, family-style, the entrees with them, and talk about recipes and ingredients.
Wok Charred Beef ($14) - This is a knockout! The marinated beef is cooked in a Kung Pao Sauce (see the video ) then wok fried with marinated mushrooms and colorful peppers. (Don’t eat the red hot ones!) I saw the beef smoking in the wok, but was surprised to be able to taste the smoke too! It was a pretty and spicy platter of food. I would order it anytime!
Shrimp With Candied Walnuts ($14) - This was odd, but delicious. At PF Changs everything is typically done from scratch, so they even candy their own walnuts! The shrimp is lightly coated in a potato flour, stir fried with walnuts tossed in, and quickly tossed with honeydew melon balls before serving. The crispy coating on the shrimp helps it to hold the sweet creamy lime sauce. The melons are a cool surprise in the mouth, and the walnuts crunchy sweet. This is a nice combination of textures and flavors that worked best while it was still hot.
Oolong Marinated Sea Bass ($20) - They take a fresh whole sea bass, fillet and marinate it in Oolong Tea for about 36 hours, then store precut portions in the cooler. They are broiled and served with a sweet ginger soy sauce on a bed of spinach. Such a simple thing, but the sea bass picks up the tea flavor to become a moist and unusually delicious piece of fish. The wilted spinach in the sauce is perfect with it. If you like seafood, (even if you don’t!) you can’t miss ordering this.
This restaurant is located on the edge of the Finger Lakes region, where there are over 200 wineries. (It is the second largest wine producing region in the US.) While as a chain PF Changs lists wines from all over the world, here they are also committed to having New York wines - with five always on the list. They also feature one or two more each month, and even more during the Summer season. When I was there the New York vineyards included Dr. Konstantine Frank, Lilac Hill and Knapp. I would have been hard-pressed to pick one wine to go with this smokey, sweet and tea flavored collection of dishes, so I just had water with a lemon wedge. However, the wines are available by the glass, so an adventurous soul could mix n’ match a great wine flight from their extensive list.
Chefs regularly allow me access to their kitchens. This column is presented as an encapsulated look at the kitchen-to-stomach path of anything from one course to a whole meal, and may include links to a recipe, interviews with the chef, critiques on the food and service and/or a link to a video of the kitchen prep to allow you an insider’s view of the restaurant.