Chinese food gets a bad reputation for being a pretty unhealthy cuisine.
Most people across American associate Chinese food with deep-fried battered meats (often coated with tons of sugar), greasy sauces, and loads of MSG. A Chinese restaurant is the last place a person seeking out "spa food" would visit.
So I was surprised when P.F. Chang's contacted me about their new summer menu. They threw names of ingredients at me that I did not expect, like "heirloom tomatoes", "quinoa", "green papaya", and "cilantro."
Granted, P.F. Chang's is not your typical Chinese restaurant. In fact, it's a nationwide chain that got its start in Arizona by selling Asian-themed "grazing food". Though it's called a "China" Bistro, its food is actually inspired by all sort of Asian cuisines.
I agreed to try out the summer menu.
Bryan and I took a couple friends with us and decided to try the entire summer menu, literally. The summer menu has six items, so we knew we needed to bring some "help" in order to have any hope finishing all six dishes.
It had been years since I had visited an "American Chinese" (or maybe fusion is more appropriate?) restaurant, so I wasn't sure what to expect.
P.F. Chang's has an Asian-themed cocktail menu, with drinks that incorporate ingredients such as
Asian pear, black tea, coconut, and spicy chilies.
Bryan started out with the Yuzu Ginger Mojito which he thought was not bad - refreshing and not too sweet. He wished for more ginger flavor, though he tends to prefer drinks that have a very strong ginger component.
We sort of freaked out the server when we told her we were planning on ordering every single dish on the summer menu.
"Are you sure? It's a lot of food."
"Yes, we definitely want to order every single item, plus a few more of your classics."
She asked us a few more times if we were really sure, and we confirmed that we needed to try every single dish. She looked skeptical and slightly amused, but went along with our "demands."
Alas unfortunately, they had sold out of the Peking Duck Summer Rolls, one of the six items. We did order the remaining five summer menu items, along with a couple additional classics.
Thought we were sitting at a typical table for four, our server ended up moving another table over for us in order to fit all the food.
I swear it must have been the first time I've had to add a table to fit all the food I ordered.
We began with one of the starters from the summer menu, Heirloom tomato and Thai basil salad ($7.95). According to the description, market-fresh heirloom tomatoes were tossed with avocados, Thai basil and ponzu dressing.
Although the concept behind the dish was promising, the execution was a disappointment. The tomatoes were just not that flavorful and had the texture of refrigerated tomatoes. Perhaps they weren't vine ripen? The avocados redeemed the dish a bit - they were ripe with a nice, soft texture. I'm really not sure if the Thai basil added anything. Overall, we did not love this dish.
One of the better dishes of the evening was the Grilled Prawns with Chilled Peanut Noodle Salad ($15.95). The prawns were grilled perfectly - they were juicy, flavorful, and cooked just enough so that the texture of the shrimp "popped" when you bit into them.
The cold noodles seemed to be inspired by Thai flavors, and were tossed in a red curry-peanut sauce served alongside shaved snow peas, crispy shallots, bean sprouts, carrots, cilantro, and lime. Overall, the sweet, savory, and "peanut-y" sauce was reasonably pleasant, though I didn't really like the texture of the noodles, which were a bit mushy. The dish wasn't very spicy (unlike authentic Thai food), but captured a balance of savory and sweet.
I was really surprised to find a healthy dish like the Grilled Pineapple Citrus Swordfish with Pineapple Rice ($19.95) on the menu (which doesn't really seem Chinese at all). The swordfish is line-caught and grilled, served over a fried rice mixture that includes asparagus, carrots, summer squash, red peppers, and fennel. Unfortunately, the flavors were quite bland, since there's hardly any salt in the dish. Adding soy sauce helped, but overall this dish was underwhelming.
Similarly, their Summer Vegetable Quinoa Fried Rice ($11.95) was another dish that was hardly salted and seemingly a bit heavy on the oil. This dish also includes a variety of fruits and vegetables, such as sunburst squash, mango, tomatoes, and snow peas. Again, adding soy sauce helped make the dish taste better.
The Korean BBQ Chicken Stir Fry ($13.85) consisted of deep fried and battered chicken pieces tossed in a sweet and spicy red chili sauce. These pieces were stir fried with fresh red peppers, onions, and green beans. The entire dish was then topped with a kimchi slaw.
I personally was not a big fan of this dish. The chicken was not particularly tender, and the sauce was too sweet and thick for my tastes. The battered fried chicken + sweet sauce combo sort of reminded me of Chinese take-out, like sweet & sour chicken or General Gau's chicken.
Because we were not able to order the Peking Summer Rolls, we decided to order a few of their classic, best dishes. We asked the server for recommendations.
"Basically, if you look at the menu, the top few items are also our most popular items."
She strongly recommended the Chang's Chicken Lettuce Wraps and the Crispy Honey Shrimp. We went along with her suggestions, as well as ordering the Crab Fried Rice, which just looked interesting.
The Crispy Honey Shrimp ($15.95) consisted of lightly battered and deep fried baby shrimp tossed in a honey sauce with green onions. I found the batter and sauce too sweet for my tastes. This dish reminded me more of Americanized Chinese take-out versus authentic Chinese food.
The Crab Fried Rice ($13.95) caught our eye because the ingredients looked really enticing: rice was tossed in a hot wok with lump crab meat, Shiitake mushrooms, asparagus, egg, bacon, lemon, and Sriracha.
This was yet another dish that just wasn't as flavorful as we had imagined given the ingredients. We needed to add soy sauce to bring out the flavors, which definitely helped.
The Chang's Chicken Lettuce Wraps ($8.95) are classic and they are pretty good. Ground chicken is stir fried with mushrooms, water chestnuts, and green onions to serve as the meaty filling which you wrap with the iceberg lettuce. The contrast of flavors, textures, and even temperatures is nice, and overall this dish is solid. I can definitely see why it's one of the most popular dishes.
The desserts are pretty standard American desserts, such as New York cheesecake, tiramisu, red velvet cake, and chocolate cake. There's nothing really that Asian on the menu, except for perhaps the Banana Spring Rolls.
We decided to get the Chocolate Peanut Butter Sweet Treat ($2.95), which was a decadent, rich layered dessert that included peanut butter crunch, milk chocolate and caramel layers on a chocolate brownie-cake. The entire cake was then topped with honey-roasted peanuts and served with chocolate syrup and caramel sauce.
I really liked the dessert. It sort of reminded me of a really fancy Snickers bar cake. I especially liked the textural crunch from the honey roasted peanuts. The dessert also came in a really small portion, which was perfect for us, since we were already really, really full.
Overall, it was definitely an interesting experience visiting P.F. Chang's. The restaurant is most certainly more a a fusion type restaurant and quite liberally borrows ideas from all different types of Asian (and even non-Asian) cuisines.
The prices are not crazy high per dish, though the portions run on the small side compared to a normal Chinese restaurant. Our party of four actually managed to finish almost all the dishes (I think we ended up with the rice dishes left over, namely the fried rice and the quinoa).
There are a surprising number of healthier choices on the menu that are inspired by the bounty of fresh summer ingredients. Many dishes are quite friendly for those on a low-sodium diet (though arguably kind of bland for the general public). My favorite dishes of the evening were probably the Grilled Prawns (minus the noodles), Chang's Chicken Lettuce Wraps, and the Chocolate Peanut Butter Sweet Treat. I would skip anything that is deep fried and comes with a thick, sweet sauce.
I'm not sure how much longer the summer menu will be around (can you believe summer is almost over?!). Perhaps they will try to do something similar for the fall and the winter - continue to experiment, explore, and offer healthy dishes inspired by a broader range of Asian cuisines.
Disclaimer: this post and meal were sponsored by P.F. Chang's. All opinions are my own.
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