P.F. Chang's China Bistro in Edina's Southdale Center just might be the hottest restaurant in the Twin Cities. During the holiday shopping season, the wait for tables sometimes ran up to three hours.
If you like authentic Chinese cuisine, you probably won't like P.F. Chang's. But then again, maybe that's irrelevant, since P.F. Chang's isn't really very Chinese. (For that matter, it isn't a bistro, either.)
Or rather, it's a Chinese restaurant in the same way that Don Pablo's is Mexican or the Olive Garden is Italian. It's a smart and stylish variation on the basic chain-mall-theme restaurant formula: foreign cuisines adapted to U.S. tastes, with just a hint of the exotic, but nothing too weird or unfamiliar.
If you like those restaurants, there is a good chance that you will like P.F. Chang's, and that you wouldn't like the more authentic Chinese restaurants such as Shuang Cheng, the Dragon Court or the nearby New Hong Kong Kitchen. Those places may have more authentic food, but they don't offer much in the way of ambience, and even reading their menus may be upsetting for the squeamish.
To look on the bright side, P.F. Chang's food may be mediocre, but no worse than at a lot of second-rate Chinese-owned Chinese restaurants. And P.F. Chang's offers a much more attractive setting -- with replicas of the famous Xian terra-cotta soldiers -- plus generous portions, reasonable prices, a full bar and a convenient mall location.
But if you compare nearly any of P.F. Chang's dishes to the versions served at the better Chinese restaurants around town, P.F. Chang's versions don't measure up. The shrimp dumplings ($6.95) are served in little metal steamer baskets, just like at dim sum restaurants. But the chefs at the Peking Garden, Mandarin Kitchen, My Le Hoa or Yangtze would be ashamed to serve anything so heavy and rubbery.
P.F. Chang's salt and pepper calamari ($6.95) consists of thick strips of lightly breaded white generic matter, without any of those icky tentacles, but also without much flavor.
Steamed fresh fish is a signature dish at restaurants such as the Seafood Palace, the Village Wok or the New Hong Kong Kitchen. Order steamed fish at any of these restaurants and you'll get the whole fish, head, tail and all -- in some cases, one that was swimming in a tank just minutes before. P.F. Chang's steamed fish of the day ($13.95) was a white rectangle of Alaskan halibut in a soy-based broth; mild, pleasant, but not as delicate or flavorful.
The harvest spring rolls ($3.50) were like the egg rolls at bad Chinese restaurants. For a moment I thought that the Cantonese scallops ($12.25) were fake, but then I decided that they were simply overcooked; in any case, they had little flavor. The Malaysian chicken ($10.25), in a coconut curry sauce with onions and carrots, was adequate, but not nearly as good as the Malaysian-style curries served at the Singapore Chinese restaurant or local Thai restaurants.
But setting comparisons aside, there were a few winners. The chicken lettuce wraps ($6.25), diced chicken and water chestnuts spooned into crisp lettuce leaves, are actually quite tasty, as was the seared ahi tuna ($7.95), little slices of rare tuna served over a bed of sprouts. The VIP Cantonese duck ($12.95) was also decent -- moist strips of duck meat and a duck leg, served with Peking pancakes and a hoisin sauce.
Best of the entrees was a lively dish of spicy ground chicken and eggplant ($8.95), though the meatless stir-fried spicy eggplant ($6.95) was just bland and oily. The orange peel shrimp ($12.95) were served in generous quantity, but the sauce was too oily and salty, as was the sauce for the double pan-fried noodles ($8.95).
Our waitress warned us that the ma po tofu ($6.95) was one of the spiciest dishes on the menu, and couldn't be ordered mild (why not? -- is it prepared in batches?). We ordered it, anyway, and got a dish that was surprisingly bland, while the vegetable chow fun ($6.95) was surprisingly hot.
The high-point dining at P.F. Chang's was the desserts -- a huge wedge portion of six layer Great Wall chocolate cake ($6.95), a luscious slice of not-too-sweet, not-too-heavy cheesecake ($4.95), and a wonderful chocolate glazed Temple of Heaven, filled with mocha mousse ($6.95). Not exactly Chinese, but neither is P.F. Chang's.
-- Jeremy Iggers is at firstname.lastname@example.org .