P.F. Chang’s is ‘in’ place to eat, but service needs work

Folks are lining up to eat at P.F. Chang’s China Bistro in Colonie Center, where the food isn’t a wh
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Folks are lining up to eat at P.F. Chang’s China Bistro in Colonie Center, where the food isn’t a whole lot better or worse than your neighborhood Chinese restaurant. It’s glitzier, with fancier desserts and broader fare, though.

For those of you who have been living under a rock, P.F. Chang’s is the hot new big-box chain restaurant that opened in October, next to that other big-box chain place that sells cheesecake. People are turning out in droves to visit these places.

Having heard horror stories about two-hour waits, I plotted an early weekday lunch visit. Dining companion Virginia met me shortly before 11:30, and we congratulated ourselves when we found the place nearly empty. Within an hour it was full, and the lobby jammed.

Later, I found that P.F. Chang’s does take reservations, and I advise you to call ahead. I was able to get a reservation on a weeknight for 7 p.m. when I called at 4 p.m. You get a confirmation number and are guaranteed a seat within five or 10 minutes of your reservation, I was told. For weekends, it’s best to call the day before or the morning of your visit.

The smart stone-walled lobby smelled of cooking oil and frying, just like your neighborhood Chinese restaurant, but the decor is way more upscale. The granite theme is carried into the large high-ceilinged dining room, which is dramatically lighted by dozens of oversized lanterns. Booths line the front wall under the windows, and the stone-fronted bar under the massive mural takes up the whole right side of the restaurant. Every seat was taken within the hour, too.

Wood-topped tables and padded chairs fill the cavernous dining room. We asked for a booth, which was roomy for two medium-sized people with winter coats. Four would be a tight squeeze.

Family-friendly

P.F. Chang’s is family-friendly. During our visit, small children climbed on furniture, stood up in booths, regularly exercised their lungs, and one adorable little girl, bored of playing with the window blinds, almost felled a server carrying a tray of drinks by running directly across his path. There is no children’s menu, however. Everyone is encouraged to share.

Our main server delivered a tray of condiments and offered such helpful information as “the soy sauce is salty.” While reciting the spiel, she presented the sauces: chili, dumpling and mustard, and after determining that we didn’t like our food spicy, dunked the only spoon into the chili and the mustard, and half-heartedly stirred it into the hoisin. What we were supposed to do with it was never explained.

Virginia started with hot sweet ginger peach tea ($2.50), which came in a charming iron tea pot. I sipped a diet Coke ($2.25) while we read the menu, which is divided into starters, soups and salads, chicken, meat, seafood, grill, and traditions, which includes lunch-sized portions for $8.

You can get chow mein, priced at $9.50, or $11 for the combo, which apparently includes noodles. My neighborhood place delivers their chicken chow mein combo (#1) with an egg roll and fried rice for $5.50.

By the way: no fried noodles with duck sauce and mustard. But they have calamari.

We started with Chang’s excellent spare ribs ($8), six tasty ribs with sweet, sticky sauce. The meat was juicy and tender, and we liked the black and tan sesame seeds sprinkled over. There was limp dressed cabbage on the side, which Virginia called bland. But the ribs were great, probably the best I’ve ever had.

We got the pan-fried Peking dumplings ($5.50) and they were good, too, although supersized. The four dumplings were like golf balls. “They’re just full of meat,” said Virginia. And they have a nice, slightly aromatic flavor, and come with a sweet dark sauce that was just the right accompaniment.

Serving gaps

An army of black-dressed servers work together, but there are gaps. A second server who brought our entrees out had to juggle them because the used plates hadn’t been cleared. Virginia’s knife disappeared and she had to wait for a new one, delivered by the first server who had encouraged us to share our meals when we ordered, but neglected to bring us plates to do so. She brought them later.

The shrimp with candied walnuts ($15) is an attractive dish served with honeydew melon balls that provide a pleasant contrast in texture, flavor, and temperature. P.F. Chang’s knows how to fry; these trimmed and battered shrimp were crispy under the light seafood-flavored sauce. “These go down easily,” said Virginia, and I agreed.

The orange peel beef ($14) had a crispy coating and moderate heat from chilies. I liked the flavor, the taste and texture of the beef, although when I stir-fry at home, I use a more tender cut of meat. The thick orange peel slices were strong. But the thick, sweet and spicy sauce went a long way, and a small amount mixed with the rice and green onion gave it plenty of flavor.

I asked Virginia how she liked the entrees. “Good,” she said brightly, scrunching her forehead in concentration. I agreed, but I still don’t understand why people are falling over themselves to get in.

Desserts are winners

Desserts were very good. Yet another server brought them out and gave me a fork for my ice cream. Virginia’s flourless chocolate dome ($6) was rich and not too sweet. The tangy raspberry sauce more than adequately balanced out the fudgy cake. Her plate, like mine, was decorated with fresh berries. Like all the plates we had, it was beautifully presented.

You have to try the banana spring rolls ($6.50), if just for the pineapple-coconut ice cream that comes with it. It didn’t taste like either pineapple or coconut to Virginia or me, but like the best French vanilla we’ve ever had. The sauce probably helps mask the flavors, but we weren’t complaining. The warm spring rolls were still crisp, and the banana just a little soft. We both tasted a spring roll but ate all the ice cream.

We only felt a little rushed when the server brought our check, unbidden, along with some fortune cookies before we were done with dessert. The tab came to $77.53 with tax and tip, and we had leftovers for lunch the next day. We pushed our way through the crowd in the lobby, literally, to get out.

P.F. Chang’s is wildly popular and people think it’s cool to go there. You decide. But please, call ahead.

P.F. Chang’s China Bistro

WHERE: Colonie Center, Colonie. Phone 454-0040.

WHEN: 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Sundays to Thursdays, 11 a.m. to midnight Fridays and Saturdays.

HOW MUCH: $77.53

MORE INFO: Reservations recommended, especially on weekends. Wheelchair accessible. No children’s menu, but items prepared upon request. MasterCard, Visa, American Express, Discover, Diner’s Club.

Categories: Food, Life and Arts

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