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P.F. Chang's is Growing

by Jacqueline M. Newman

Chinese Food in the USA

Spring Volume: 2007 Issue: 14(1) page(s): 28 and 29

Pillsbury's attempt to create a Chinese restaurant group, circa the 1970's and the attempts of other Chinese chain initiations have gone belly up while newer ones are expanding. Will they continue? Their crystal rice bowls seem shiny and bright. So it seems for the P.F. Chang's Bistro and its other ventures which are growing in numbers of places and numbers of menu items. Why are Chinese and other Asian chains expanding? One reason may be, in the case of this bistro bunch, their non-traditional yet very Chinese menus, their snazzy appearance complete with Chinese-looking murals that set the stage for tastes from China, and more acceptance of China's foods than in the past. Others may include being situated in areas such as upscale strip malls or western-looking shopping areas, their smart-looking entryways, good-looking chairs and comfortable banquettes, well-spaced tables, super-clean facilities, hopping bars, and never a rush for customers to pay their tabs.

Most eaters at these PF bustling bistros are young and yuppie. They find them upscale, lively, and cool, and they see them as champs of Chinese chains. They know they are 'in' and 'in'-creasing. As they contribute to their growth, do they understand what they crave that has them returning so often?

Since their inception, in 1993, Paul Fleming and his wife Kelly and Philip Chiang set a high bar for upscale Chinese food in good locations with reasonable prices. Since their starting this new vision of upscale affordable ethnic eateries, the number of PF Chang Bistros has expanded to more than two hundred locations around the country; and they are in four-fifths of the States in the USA.

These three visionaries, some years back, tossed their leadership chopsticks to others. Some wonder why they left operations that spawned a sister concept called Pei Wei Asian Diners. This second concept is approaching a hundred places of their own. Pei Wei is, in some ways, the antithesis of the bistro concept. They serve five different Asian cuisines, and take orders cafeteria-style. Customers then sit down at a table and wait for their food to be delivered. They are less expensive, offer ample variety, have dishes that arrive quickly; and they are very clean. Parents delight in bringing their kids to experience exotic foods at their typical fast food prices.

Both of these Asian concepts are expanding in numbers of units and menu options. Just recently, they were joined by a new and more expensive concept that opened October 2006 in Scottsdale Arizona. It is called Taneko Japanese Tavern. This newest idea is high-end and complete with a wood-burning stove. It has many yummy Japanese bistro bites such as salt-grilled chicken, wine-braised pork ribs, and other delicious tavern-type foods. Management has the expectation that it will expand throughout the country, in due time.

P.F. Chang's Bistro and Pei Wei Asian Diner places are destination eateries. People speak about the Bistro's easily recognized Tang Dynasty horses that are replicas of those found in Xian, China. Folks who used to skip eating Chinese or any Asian food are heading to them in growing numbers. We set out to learn what they adore when going to one of them; and why are these and other chains are making the grade.

We queried their diners in several cities, and from our own experiences, the number one reason is they like but do not love the food and are enjoying it because they perceive it is healthy. They like that they can have a beer or more alcoholic beverages with their meal, like that they are spotless, and that they are friendly. They appreciate staff who understand them and visa versa. They appreciate no thick sauces and many selections not deep-fried. They also like that each time they order a dish it looks as it did on a previous occasion.

In further exploration of the healthy dishes statement, we learn that they recognize they are loaded with vegetables that are fresh. Asking management about that, we learn their vegetables are delivered daily. And, as to the 'sameness' that customers sense, they may not know it but every dish is exactly the same every time because all major ingredients are weighed before cooking.

Many folk who know of our expertise wonder what we really think about these and other fast food Chinese chains. We understand the question and appreciate what one lady said, which was that "they do not serve any squiggly things I do not recognize" and "I like that every nook and cranny is super clean."

To test the latter, we visit their public facilities and find not a single grungy bathroom. We taste their offerings and find not a bite of overcooked food among the many fresh vegetables. We do find their foods Americanized, affordable, and well-prepared, rarely find an unusual food item, and are amazed at their appreciation as 'exotic.'

The folks who eat at a P.F. Chang's Bistro tell us they like to go there because every dish is cooked to order. Some do know what they are eating is really not authentic Chinese food but they like that the foods at these eateries meet their taste requirements, price considerations, and personal experiences with Chinese food. They also like the friendly staff, the clean and upscale facilities, and the foods they serve. They like the large bar and good alcoholic beverages, the delicious and different tea selections, and the non-alcoholic drinks including the bubble beverages, they delight in them. the decent desserts, and the good coffee.

We were able to visit unannounced and later behind the scenes at a P.F. Chang's Bistro. We saw how every dish was prepared exactly the same way every time by weighing every ingredient. We saw staff using the many pages of instructions about every recipe. Yes, they really do weigh each main ingredient. We could appreciate how carefully trained staff was, and that they continually update them. With years of management training and teaching, we could assess that cooks checked to make every dish look exactly like its photograph. We saw some of them viewing them often as they hang near food preparation stations.

We believe these behaviors contribute to their success. We know every recipe is tested many times before it makes it on to the menu. We met the knowledgeable team of restaurant owner-chefs and were impressed by their desire to learn what their customers like. They told us they delight in serving foods in convenient, clean, carefully selected, and popular locations.

They also told us that most people often order their Vegetarian Lettuce Wraps. This appetizer is so popular, they make six hundred thousand portions a month. Another hot seller is Mongolian Beef prepared with lots of scallions and a mite of garlic. Their customers, they tell us, want no more garlic than they get because they do not want their breath telling others what they ate. They tell us their Warm Duck Salad wins customers with its mandarin oranges, almonds, and shallots prepared in a savory citrus sauce, and they are delighted that it does.

Personally, we enjoy their Wok-Seared Lamb, and often order it along with Dan Dan Noodles. That pasta item, with origins in the Sichuan province, is always a surprise. We expect it with pork and forget that it comes with chicken. The owner-chefs tell us Americans want it that way. On a recent visit, we check out new items on their 'Flavors of Sichuan' menu. The Imperial Black Cod, diced and delicate, is stir-fried with soy beans, red peppers, pine nuts, and black mushrooms. It is a winner in our book. The recipe is on their website www.pfcangs.com/cuisine/imperialblackcod.jsp and is provided below, rewritten in this magazine's recipe-style. The lamb already mentioned does remind of lamb eaten in Chengdu, the capital of the Sichuan province. It comes caramelized and with cumin, mint, tomatoes, and chives. Only Ma Po Dou Fu disappoints as its taste is too bland for us. While this province rejoices in piquant items, several customers we spoke to advised us they order it often because it is not spicy.

For customers with special needs, P.F. Chang's Bistro staff caters to them. There is a children’s menu and a gluten-fee menu. Diners ordering from the latter can rest assured that they do use gluten-fee soy sauce. But these same customers need to know that foods are made in woks that may be used for non-gluten free foods. Therefore, eating them may pose problems for those highly allergic or those with Celiac disease. These folk need to check with a dietitian before indulging.

To keep customers coming back, restaurants need to occasionally add new items. Popular Chinese chains are doing that. Top and lesser brass and yours truly recently tasted Chinese foods under P.F. Chang's consideration. They told us there will be others coming in February. Therefore, do check this Bistro and other chain web sites often.

Who are these other chains and what are their web sites. In this issue, check the end of the Top 100 Chinese Restaurants article. It includes numbers of units of the largest/best of them that applied to this award competition.

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