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Stopping a Chain Reaction

Spunky Dishes at P.F. Chang's Far Exceed Preconceptions

November 23, 2000|MARTIN BOOE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

P.F. Chang's China Bistros have been spreading across the land like kudzu since 1993. I'm kind of franchise-phobic, but at the suggestion of a friend, I headed to that neon mecca known as the Irvine Spectrum to sample the P.F. Chang's there.

It's a cavernous but visually engaging space with fashionably dim lighting. Replicas of 12th century Mongolian statues peer from their pedestals over the sea of tables. Large, white cloth-covered disks mute the larger overhead lights and keep you from being totally swallowed by the restaurant's vastness.

The place is definitely a scene. Its industrial-chic-meets-opium-den design obviously strives to create a high-voltage ambience, and it succeeds. On weekends, P.F. Chang's fills with hordes of fashionably dressed young people, and the din can be fairly thunderous.

There can also be a substantial wait. I put my name on the waiting list and was handed a pager that was to vibrate when our table was ready. My party then bivouacked at the sprawling bar for appetizers and cocktails, poured with an impressively generous hand. If you're into fruity cocktails, this is the place; I'd say Chang's is fairly unrivaled in the Mai Tai/Singapore Sling department. Its editions are tall, tasty and potent.

We started with Chang's chicken in soothing lettuce wraps: lettuce leaf tacos filled with mildly spiced chicken. Pleasant, but it's not a taste you'll take with you into old age. We also ordered two sets of dumplings. Both were good, with a pleasingly firm bite, but the soy sauce-based dipping sauce for the Peking dumplings (filled with ground pork and vegetables) tasted too sharply of rice vinegar. The ginger chile soy sauce that accompanied the shrimp dumplings was rounder and more pleasing.

Time passed and we awaited our page. I had given the device to a friend because my cell phone can vibrate in my pocket all day and I never notice. This person accused me of having deficient nerve endings, assumed responsibility for the call to action and pocketed the device. After about 50 minutes, I checked in with the hostess station and was told they'd been paging us for 20 minutes. So much for superior nervous systems.

And so we were led to our table. I was still fairly skeptical, but after this visit and a subsequent one, I've had to acknowledge that Chang's far exceeds what you'd expect of a chain its size. The menu is not just Chinese--it casts a wide net for Asian influences--and many of the dishes have real flair. Considering the overall high quality of the ingredients, it's a good value (entrees run $7.95 to $12.95). It's refreshing to see such a large chain turning out food with this sort of of spunk.

For example, the seared ahi plays with your palate in a couple of ways. There's the crunch of the seared pepper crust, then the cool of the chilled fish, followed by the bang of a spicy mustard sauce. Also especially good are Chang's ribs, in a nicely balanced sweet-sour marinade spiked with a high note of ginger.

I also liked the crisp wontons, filled with a mild mixture of crab and cream cheese. They're drizzled with hot sesame oil, which gives the dish an interesting tension.

The entrees are somewhat more hit-or-miss, but there are a couple of knockouts. The Sichuan-style orange-peel beef strikes the right combination of sweet and hot.

Even better is Paul's catfish, probably the best dish on the menu. Tender chunks of catfish are lightly shellacked with breading; stir-fried just to the point of a having a faint, pleasantly charred taste; and tossed with pungent, garlicky black-bean sauce. This was by far my favorite dish here, and one I'd go out of my way for.

Dull dishes include the "firecracker shrimp," a passable but rather one-note affair, overwhelmed by the taste of red bell pepper. And skip the moo shu pork; it's bland, far heavier on shredded cabbage than pork, and the plum sauce is nothing to write home about. Similarly, Chef Roy's favorite chicken is OK but doesn't leave much of an impression; the oyster sauce is one-dimensional and could have used more shallots to give it a boost.

On the other hand, "Sichuan from the sea" comes swimming in a bold red pepper and garlic sauce with a nice snap of heat that doesn't trounce the flavor of the seafood. I had the shrimp version, and the shrimp were firm and flavorful; it's also available with scallops or calamari.

The two noodle dishes we tried were a split decision. The wonderful garlic noodles are silky, hot with peppers and sure to satisfy any garlic lover; spicy Asian comfort food, in other words. On the other hand, a bitter dose of cumin tyrannizes over the flavor of the Singapore noodles, stir-fried with curry and vegetables.

Though not made on the premises, the small selection of desserts is outstanding. The delicate macadamia nut torte is lighter than you'd expect from anything using that particular nut, and the flourless chocolate torte succeeds because it uses excellent chocolate. But if you're into chocolate, try the "chocolate wall," as in the Great Wall: a giant slab of supremely moist layer cake that's enough for two.

A final note: Service on weekends can be erratic, as Chang's does a huge business serving pre- and post-moviegoers.

Appetizers are $3.50 to $7.95. Entrees $7.95 to $12.95. Desserts $4.50 to $6.96.

* P.F. Chang's China Bistro, Irvine Spectrum Center, 61 Fortune Drive. (949) 453-1211. Also at Fashion Island, 1145 Newport Center Drive, Newport Beach, (949) 759-9007. Open Sunday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-11 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m.-midnight.

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