Cafe Reviews

Second Helpings

Taking Stock: I was intrigued to learn that P.F. Chang's, the oh-so-trendy Chinese restaurant, is considering going public. Its operators have filed for an initial public offering, looking to raise almost $60 million from stock to finance expansion.

The restaurant has been extremely successful from the get-go, five years ago, when restaurateur Paul Fleming opened the first P.F. Chang's in Scottsdale Fashion Square. Now, there are 15 branches, from Florida to California, including a bustling second Valley unit in Tempe.

When I reviewed P.F. Chang's back in 1993, I hated it. The concept--a hip, elegant setting with dumbed-down Chinese food aimed at fork-and-knife Midwestern palates--had its ethnic-restaurant priorities backward. I wrote that the "food was so dull it could induce a coma, prepared without whimsy, creativity or style. If this fare were music, it would be played in an elevator."

Obviously, the eating-out public disagreed with me, in droves. These days, you can wait hours for a table. And the company's management clearly believes Wall Street investors will be just as enthusiastic.

Maybe, I reflected, I was wrong about P.F. Chang's. So I revisited the place, prepared to reassess my position.

The verdict? P.F. Chang's still puts me to sleep. For the life of me, I can't see why anyone who likes Chinese food would want to eat here.

Take the harvest spring rolls. (Harvest? What harvest?) They're snoozy, fast-food-quality egg rolls, filled with veggies that haven't been sufficiently cooked. The Peking ravioli are another appetizer loser, four-for-$5 dumplings that registered zero on the flavor scale.

My heart sank when I looked at the main-dish list. So many items come battered and fried, which, I guess, is just the way America's masses prefer. I thought we might escape the battering with a daily special, wok-fried monkfish. (The menu description said nothing about batter.) Nope--it turned out to be tasteless chunks of battered fish. And that wasn't the only culinary crime committed against the monkfish, a meaty species that's often called the "poor man's lobster." The kitchen heaped on a sweet, cloying plum sauce that effectively masked any flavor that might have inadvertently slipped through the batter cracks.

Can you believe this place offers sweet-and-sour pork? Perhaps, I imagined as I ordered the dish, the chef had come up with an inventive twist to it. A pipe dream--it's just chunks of battered pork with pineapple, green peppers and onion, drenched in a one-dimensional sauce. If you saw this in a chafing tray at your employee cafeteria, you'd keep walking past it.

Spicy ground chicken and eggplant didn't have enough spice in it to singe a newborn's tongue. But it did have enough salt to take care of your recommended sodium allowance for a week. And the bland Szechuan chicken chow fun has to be the only Chinese noodle dish in history that I didn't want to finish.

Paul Fleming is a savvy businessman who knows how to make money. My advice: Buy stock. Eat someplace else.

--Howard Seftel

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Howard Seftel