P.F. Chang's China Bistro, the perennially popular Scottsdale-based chain known for its menu of modern Asian fusion fare, is the kind of place you inevitably come across in the wilds of upscale suburbia. The restaurant, which is nearly always situated in close proximity to a shopping mall, is essentially a theme restaurant at heart, with sleek, cavernous dining rooms designed to immerse you in a kind of pleasantly faux exoticism.
You can spot a P.F. Chang's from a distance, thanks to the chain's signature 11-foot-tall horse statues standing guard over front entrances (the statures are meant to invoke China's imperial Forbidden City). Once inside, you'll find hand-painted murals with motifs from the Ming and T'ang dynasties, and dining rooms dimly lit with designer wall sconces, carefully calibrated to lend a flattering glow. What might seem kind of corny or ostentatious elsewhere (the giant horse statues, for example), seems almost sophisticated and tasteful at your local P.F. Chang's. It's a theme restaurant with the theme elements toned down, so that for a brief moment or two, you might feel you're dining at a neighborhood bistro rather than at one of the chain's 200 or so international locations.
You already may be familiar with the restaurant's expansive menu, offering a kind of pan-Asian greatest hits compilation where Japanese sushi rolls live alongside Thai curries, Korean fried chicken, and hand-rolled Chinese dumplings. Oh, and there are tacos. The endlessly versatile and popular Mexican street snack has been adapted here as a waistline-friendly appetizer, with the tortillas swapped out in favor of crisp jicama shells.
Of course, the central criticism lobbed against P.F. Chang's is that it deals almost exclusively in an unchallenging, Americanized brand of Chinese food (with frequent excursions into other Asian cuisines). But that is the restaurant's formula for success. It offers diners an undemanding menu of Asian-inspired eats, without the language barriers or unfamiliar ingredients that they might encounter at their local hole-in-the-wall. Eating at a P.F. Chang's is not unlike eating at an Olive Garden or a Black Angus in the sense that you don't generally come here to explore new flavors or venture into unfamiliar territory.
This month, the restaurant has released a new menu in honor of the Chinese New Year, a limited-time only selection of appetizers and entrees that will be served at all locations through the end of February. The small menu — there are only four dishes — is a distillation of what the chain has become famous for, a toned-down version of traditional Chinese fare designed for mass appeal.
Take the butternut squash dumplings,served in a small appetizer-size portion. The handmade dumplings come floating on a silky puddle of umami butter, a velvety blend of soy, and butter so rich it could probably make an old leather shoe somewhat palatable. The dumplings, filled with sweet and nutty butternut squash, more closely resemble Italian raviolis than what you might find at your local weekend dim sum. But they are lavished in so much butter and cream that you may not even notice or care. The intensely rich sauce makes this dish memorable, but the dumplings themselves are fairly forgettable.
Then there are the Long Life Noodles, an egg noodle dish that has been wok-tossed with garlicky prawns, roasted chili peppers, and fermented black beans. In China, noodle dishes often are served on birthdays and Chinese New Year, but the ones here don't seem to live up to the spirit of the occasion. The thick noodles are coated in oil and a touch too greasy. Grilled chile peppers and a sprinkling of fermented black beans, which are about as salty as capers, help add some life to the dish.
A better option is the sichuan chile-garlic chicken. The dish is essentially two thinly sliced chicken breasts, glazed in a spicy chile-garlic sauce and topped with scallions and bean sprouts. It's a simple offering, but manages to sing with more fiery notes of chile and garlic than you'll find in other parts of the menu.
Hong Kong-style Chilean sea bass is touted as the menu's most calorie-light option. At $26.95, it's a pricy slab of white fish, steamed and lightly seasoned with ginger. It's served over grape tomatoes and asparagus tips, which are steeped in a ginger and coriander broth. The fish is flaky and light, but on the whole, the dish is too subtle and ho-hum to linger long in your memory.
P.F. Chang's will no doubt continue to win the allegiance of diners looking for moderately price Asian-inspired fare, cooked-to-order in slick surroundings. But no matter how many cocktails you have at the bar, or how many lettuce wraps and brown rice you down in one sitting, you may still find yourself feeling a bit empty.