It's Not Really Asian Food, But...

P.F. Chang's

We all know the standard advice of, "don't eat at chain restaurants, go to local shops to get authentic food." It's a good rule to live by, generally, as smaller restaurants will do cool variations on known dishes while potentially bringing in their own specialties. Plus, small restaurants have a hard time staying open as the restaurant market, in general, is hard to break into and stay afloat. If you eat at a local spot you help them stay open.

All that being said, I find that (at least in Indianapolis) it's really hard to find a good Asian restaurant that makes solid, dependable food with the right flavor flair. There are plenty of "greasy spoon" Chinese places, all cranking out low-rent versions of the same classic menu you can find anywhere, but for good stuff, special dishes, you're generally shit out of luck. Those that do start off well generally devolve over time, cheapening out on ingredients and quality to cut towards their bottom line, ruining what made them so good. I've seen way too many restaurants start off strong before going to absolute crap within a year.

It's why, when I'm downtown looking for a hit of Asian food during my lunch hour I usually end up going to P.F. Chang's. It's it a large chain? Yep. It's it authentic Asian food? Not in the slightest. What they are, though, is dependable in their flavors and large enough that they won't end up changing their menu drastically nor closing down because the market has taken a turn. I can rely on P.F. Chang's and get exactly what I want every time. I wish I could get better but this is what I have when I need that fix.

While the two chains aren't related in any way I do feel like P.F. Chang's. is basically an tidied up Panda Express, the dependable food court dive that, over the years, has moved out to other, stand-along shopping locations. When you go to a Panda Express you know what you're going to get: food that looks vaguely Chinese, where most of it is deep fried and all of it feels just slightly more "healthy" than a burger and fries. It's probably the rice and the smattering of veggies, luring you into thinking the food is healthy. I feel the same way about P.F. Chang's, it's just that their restaurants are nicer. Technically they're about the same price, though, depending on what you're looking to get.

I know a lot of people have their various tests they like to do when they find a new spot. For me, at a Chinese restaurant, I always start with a Kung Pao Chicken and a Hot and Sour Soup. Eating those two items for me indicates what I'm in for if I diverge further down the menu. If the place cant make a good variant on the classic Sichuan, one that actually seems in the same ballpark of true Kung Pao, and if they somehow fuck up a basic spicy soup like Hot and Sour, then I'm not going back for anything else.

For P.F. Chang's, their Hot and Sour is pretty decent. It has a strong body to it, and it's very thick. It has a flavor that elides being cloyingly sweet (like too many shitty Hot and Sours I've tasted) while still giving me that slap of vinegar and a hint of pepper. It's not the best Hot and Sour, not by a long shot, but it does at least resemble the soup I like (which is rare to find, sadly). I will reliably grab their Hot and Sour when I'm getting other stuff as well.

The Kung Pao, though, isn't that great. P.F. Chang's has a habit of frying all their meats and that do that to the Kung Pao, too. That's the wrong way to cook Kung Pao as there should be a balance between the cubes of chicken, the celery, the peanuts, and the spice. P.F. Chang's. doesn't do cubes, they do big breaded chunks, and they don't do heavy spice, so everything feels a little more middle-American than I'd like. I'm sure there are people that find this version of the dish acceptable but I am not one of them.

Instead, knowing what P.F. Chang's is good at, I go for dishes that really should have that deep fried quality (again, this is like Panda Express where you have to go in knowing what you want). Instead of Kung Pao I'll go with their generically named Chang's Spicy Chicken, which is basically a General Tsos without the heavy sweetness, or I'll grab their Mongolian Beef, which is just straight up good.

Now, when I say the Mongolian beef is good, note that it's not a traditional Mongolian Beef (because nothing at this restaurant can be normal or sane). When you get a proper Mongolian Beef there's an expectation of how the dish will look and taste: onions, peppers, garlic, scallions, with a tasty brown sauce. P.F. Chang's makes something with just beef and scallions and a sweeter sauce, almost like they've married the ideas of Mongolian Beef and General Tso's without getting either right. It's a weird dish but, frankly, pretty tasty. I like the sauce combo with the beef, and the brightness of the green onions does perk it up. It is nowhere near healthy, though, bear in mind.

Beyond those dishes the chain has a few apps that I'd consider pretty competent. Although their Lettuce Wraps are one of their "signature" apps, I find them to be pretty meh. Instead I lean towards their Crispy Green Beans, which are lightly tempura fried and served with "signature sauce" (which is basically just a paprika-seasoned horseradish dip) or their BBQ Pork Spare Ribs, which are pretty solid fall-off-the-bone meaty chunks. Again, nothing at this restaurant is healthy so you have to accept that going in.

There are some dishes I haven't bothered even trying. Salads for one seem pointless because you're paying 15 bucks for the equivalent of a Subway salad just on a nicer plate. Their Sushi, meanwhile, always sends up red flags for me; if I'm gonna pay for overpriced soosh I'd rather it be from a trained sushi chef and not the grill boy in the back kitchen of a restaurant attached to a mall. Thank you, no.

Overall, then, the P.F. Chang's experience is of mall food dressed up to look pretty. The prices are about what you'd expect for mall food (15 bucks for a big dish) and taste comparable. It's good for what it is, but it does put on some airs. Still, if you want some depending food that has a passing flavor vaguely reminiscent of Asian there are worse places to go. The hunt for a better place, though, goes on...