When a new spot opens in town, we can't wait to check it out -- and let you know our initial impressions, share a few photos, and dish about some menu items. First Taste, as the name implies, is not a full-blown review, but instead a peek inside restaurants that have just opened, sampling a few items, and satisfying curiosities (yours and ours).
Restaurant: Pei Wei Asian Market Location: 742 E Glendale Ave (at 7th St). Open: Two days. Eats: Americanized Pan-Asian. Price Point: About $10 per person. The folks behind the wildly popular Pei Wei Asian Diner recently opened a slimmed-down version of the restaurant, dubbing it Pei Wei Asian Market (which Chow Bella writers have found fun to shorten to PWAM!). Given my aversion to nationwide chains but odd fascination with Pei Wei, I couldn't resist taking a peek.
The space is more industrial looking than a regular Pei Wei, with an open ceiling and an Asian street scene mural on the back wall. It's a curious mix of light-filled from wraparound windows and dark from the brown/black palette and Edison-style light bulbs. The rightmost screen of the flat-screen TV menu is a touchscreen that gives additional information on ingredients like lemongrass and Fresno chiles. The menu at first looks just like the familiar Diner menu, but further inspection shows the full-size Signature Dishes section is gone, replaced by a selection of sandwiches. The Diner Selects are called Pei Wei Classics, and the small plate menu is transported over almost entirely intact, with the addition of sweet potato fries (noted to be popular in Korea to justify their existence on the menu).
The Grilled Lemongrass Chicken Breast sandwich is supposed to be inspired by Vietnamese banh mi, but upon arrival looked and tasted more like a standard panino with chicken and bacon. The Sriracha-lime mayonnaise wasn't apparent, the chicken didn't have any lemongrass flavor, and the bacon and Chinese pickles made for an odd pairing. There are slices of tomato on the sandwich, but they don't make their presence known at all. I felt like the sandwich didn't really work, but I polished off the whole thing nonetheless. It was, in a word, inoffensive. The Chinese BBQ Pulled Pork and Vietnamese Chicken Meatball sandwiches both look closer to banh mi; I'll probably get one of those next time I find myself there, even if I do have a hard time paying more than $3 for an authentic one.
The sweet potato fries were the same sweet potato fries you get anywhere. The accompanying Sriracha aïoli (French for "expensive mayonnaise") had a smoky note that gave a little depth to an otherwise familiar condiment. Spice Market Noodles inexplicably included chicken despite no listing of chicken in the dish on the menu. Its flavor was pretty standard-issue Pei Wei, managing to be a nice balance of sweet, tangy, and spicy, yet fairly indistinct.
The staff was everywhere, yet somehow already seemed bored with the job despite having been open less than a week. Maybe they were a little addled after overly extensive training. Given Pei Wei's recent marketing strategies, I could see trainers being a little too excited about the food for their own good. Or maybe the staff is still nervous about having the corporate bean-counters around.
So, how is PWAM? Simply put, if you already like Pei Wei, you'll find this a welcome blend of familiar classics and new dishes. If you weren't a fan before, you'll find it a street-food version of the same safe, sanitized Pei Wei you know and dread. I'll probably find myself at PWAM! more often than I want to admit.