Utah is a land of chain restaurants. There are few places to eat that aren't owned by a corporate entity. PF Changs, a local Chinese restaurant is no exception. But while my cooking school buddies would frequently slam on various chain restaurants, I would hope that this one does not make that list.
My wife and I celebrated our first anniversary this past Saturday at the PF Changs near our home. We had been there only once before, about two months after we were married, and that was at the expense of both of our workplaces. We had both managed to score giftcards there on Halloween, so we decided to check it out. Now, I may have mentioned before that I am not a fan of Asian food in America. Even if I go to a Chinese restaurant, with a Chinese staff, and eat what is supposedly authentic Chinese food, it still tends to taste more like a wet yak. Still, with $65 worth of gift cards in hand, we had no reason not to check it out.
The service was superb. Somehow we got lucky enough to get an entire half of the restaurant to ourselves. The waitresses checked on us often, and our every need seemed to be attended to. I don't think anyone there could possibly be mistaken as being Chinese, and maybe the food wasn't real Chinese, but it was still nothing short of stellar.
Remembering our previous experience at PF Changs, I decided to take my wife there again for our anniversary. I decided to make it a surprise, and she had no idea until I opened the door for her. We were promptly seated, and we had scarcely opened our menus before our waiter showed up and asked us for our drink orders. He offered to get us an appetizer, and I quickly agreed and ordered lettuce wraps. By the time I had decided upon the rest of our order, our drinks and lettuce wraps had been delivered. The lettuce wraps were okay, but just okay, until we added the sauce at the side of the table. Suddenly they were properly seasoned, and had been elevated to nothing short of magnificent. I had wanted to save plenty of room for dinner, but I couldn't help myself from finishing off all of them.
Once our appetizer plates were cleared, it wasn't long before the rest of our meal showed up. Now, I had been saving for this meal for some time, and I had a strategy in mind, albeit an expensive one. We would order a lot of food, and then take a lot home with us. The concept at PF Changs is that each dish is meant to be shared around the table. They each come with serving spoons, and each diner gets to pick and choose. The more dishes you order, the more selections you have to put on your plate. We ordered four dishes: kung pao scallops, orange peel beef, beef a la sechuan, and due to my southwest-tuned palate, blean bean chicken.
Now, believe it or not, I had never had kung pao anything before. But as I may have previously mentioned, I have decided to start ordering things that I'm not used to. Unfortunately, kung pao did not become an instant favorite. It was good, but I will probably not rush to order it again anytime soon. And sadly, the chicken in black bean sauce, while tasty, was not as good as I had expected either. And that had been my "safe" dish. Amazingly though, both the scallops and the chicken were perfectly cooked. In fact, the chicken had found that sweet spot, thoroughly cooked, yet juicy and tender, like a rare tenderloin steak.
The stars of the show were the orange peel beef and the sechuan beef. I was intrigued when the menu described the sechuan beef as being cooked twice, which gave it a "unique" texture. And a unique texture it had: crispy, but not leathery like overcooked meat. The flavor was amazing. It was served amidst a bed of julienned carrots and celery which were also tender, juicy and flavorful. The celery was not stringy, and while both flavors complimented the beef, neither overpowered it. It was definitely my favorite dish.
A very close second was the orange peel beef, which tasted almost exactly like I had imagined it, and yet so much better. The orange peel was chewy, but not in a bad way. It had a slight bitterness to it, and yet it was slightly sweet too. It was like they had candied it before adding it to the beef. The beef itself was sliced thin, coated in an orangey goodness, and flavorful. It looked like it was going to be tough, but it wasn't. It was just about perfect. I'm not a huge fan of beef, but I would gladly order either of these two dishes again in a heartbeat.
Impressive though the food was, I'm not sure it could have matched the service. Rather than stop by every twenty minutes to ask if we needed refills on our drinks, our waiter would deliver refills before our glasses ever became empty. This is the sort of anticipation that the staff at Charlie Trotter's strives for. Both our regular waiter and the one who delivered our entrees were friendly and willing and ready to answer every question and serve our every need. There was only one mistake that I caught: our waiter initially brought me raspberry lemonade instead of the strawberry lemonade that I had ordered. When I informed him of this, it was quickly remedied.
Speaking of drinks, I had an odd revelation while I was there. This was largely inspired by my lemonades, both of which tasted fake, and the raspberry far more so. While considering this, I thought about my wife's root beer. I thought about how odd it really was to drink American soft drinks at an expensive Chinese restaurant, and yet how common in our country. And then I considered how poorly my drink matched with my meal. What in the world was I thinking? When was the last time you saw strawberries served with steak? There's a reason you never see them together. Straight lemonade would have been better, because a hint of lemon can compliment beef. Why in the world did I order a flavor to drink that I would never cook anything in my meal with? That was just a bad idea.
When our waiter brought us our check, I gladly added a generous tip to the bill. As our waiter put our food into chinese take-out boxes, we talked about the food, and which dishes were our favorites and his. All in all, we were in and out of there in about an hour. We took our time eating, and didn't feel the least bit rushed. The service I am used to in normal restaurants might have taken as long as an hour and a half, and might have made me feel rushed at that. If you ever get the chance, I would highly recommend checking out PF Changs. It may be a chain restaurant, but it's an oasis in a sea of "just okay" or even substandard food and service.