The Guilty Pleasure: Ginger Broccoli Steak Where to Get It: Pei Wei Asian Diner, locations Valleywide Price: $8.75 What It Really Costs: Admitting you ate at a national chain and liked it. Oh yeah, that plate you polished off? It's supposed to serve two.
I love lots of authentic Chinese joints around town. But, every now and again I crave one of the quintessential Americanized Chinese dishes, beef and broccoli. As far as guilty pleasures go, it's downright virtuous. I mean, c'mon, there's broccoli involved, and it's not even deep-fried.
See Also: Pei Wei's new Asian Market Location
There's one problem with my enjoyment of beef and broccoli. I've tried it at dozens of Chinese restaurants in metro Phoenix. A good number of them have been repeatedly hailed as some of the best in town. But it's always the same damn thing. The beef is gray and lifeless, and the sauce doesn't taste like anything.
I found my beef and broccoli salvation at a place that nobody recommended to me. Why did nobody think to mention them? It's because they have almost 20 locations in Arizona, and scores more locations from coast to coast. That place is Pei Wei.
Pei Wei's beef and broccoli (they like to be a little fancy and call it Ginger Broccoli Steak) is living proof that universal chain disdain is one of the worst things to come out of the foodie movement. The reason Pei Wei nails their beef and broccoli is simple: Wok hei. I can hear you now, what the hey is wok hei? The basic translation of wok hei is "the breath of a wok."
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Wok hei is the result of cooking in a wok over very high temperatures. The Maillard reaction happens, resulting in deep caramelization. The oil in the wok sometimes flares up, threatening the cook's eyebrows. The end result has an aroma and taste leagues beyond the typical lifeless strips of beef that dominate Chinese restaurants across the land. The only place I've found in the Valley that gets wok hei on a consistent basis is Pei Wei.
The sauce is a little saltier than I'd like it to be, but I'll deal with that over the otherwise dreary versions at every other Chinese joint in town. Is there some mom-and-pop place that I'm missing that hits wok hei? I'd like to think so. Let me know.
Then there's Pei Wei's Coke Freestyle machines, with amazing raspberry Coca-Cola. That's just a bonus... and a column for another day.