PF Chang’s China Bistro – Chinese, Quote Unquote

pf chang's china bistro, santa monica, los angeles, ca

PF Chang’s China Bistro

326 Wilshire Blvd (@ 3rd Street)
Santa Monica, CA 90401
310.395.1912
www.pfchangs.com

In a city that is defined not by Michelin stars on haute cuisine but by letter grades on authentic ethnic dives, in a city whose population is more colorful than a crayola Big Box, in a city that has not one, not two, but three, yes three (!) Chinatowns in faintly differing flavors all over its metropolitan area, maybe more, it is a wonder to me how PF Chang’s mustered the courage to open a restaurant.

No, sorry. Scratch that.

It is not merely “wonder,” as if I were just sitting here at my laptop gazing into my neighbors living room, just letting pretty little thoughts float through my empty head. It is mouth-agape, forehead-desperately-in-need-of-Botox-wrinkled, trigger-finger-pointed-at-temple, utter bewilderment that PF Chang’s not only exists in LA, but exists in multiple locations around the greater metropolitan area served by multiple airports, but is so crowded on a normally off-night for dining out that we get pagers, slipped into our jeans pocket to hide the shame so that when the fateful moment arrives 22 minutes after the quoted 45-minute wait, we dash back to the hostess waving the blinking pager like a 16 year-old at her first underground rave.

So maybe I exaggerate the size of my glass of Hunan Frost Haterade, but let’s be realistic here. The food at PF Chang’s is clearly intended for the Paul Flemings of the world rather than the Changs. It is food that is made “Chinese” with sodium-saturated, sugar-laden food drowning in clear, gelatinous, cornstarch-thickened sauces that would have Dr. Atkins turning over in his grave. There’s nothing wrong with that generic brand of “Chinese” food, as Panda Express serves the same thing, and it would not be totally out of character for me to pick up a small takeout box of their stirfried vegetable oil with eggplant from their kiosk when I’m at Pavilions, but that’s Panda Express. It’s supposed to be scary. PF Chang’s food is the same scary thing, but it costs a lot more because they serve it on china and you have to leave a tip. PF Chang’s is Panda Express in an H&M minidress, Louboutin peep-toe knock-offs, and a drugstore version of the Juicy Tube. A little more dressed up, but still a cheap whore.

pf chang's santa monica, los angeles, ca - vegetable dumplings
almost authentic in steamer baskets

The food is not miserable, for it most certainly is edible – that is, edible if you haven’t consumed anything but tap water in the last eleven days and you don’t mind the after-effects of sodium overdose that are inevitable even after eating something as innocuous as pert little three-pointed vegetable dumplings that almost look as authentic as Westside dimsum in a stainless steel steamer, except that they were garnished with Christmas ornaments.

Every fluid-producing gland in your body will be sucked so dry that your contact lenses will permanently adhere to the insides of your eyelids as if you slept in the them for three night in a row. You want to think that the broth of a very bland wonton soup is hydrating, but it will only cause your face to balloon to volumes that will make Giada look *whoa* proportionate (?!). Your lower GI tract will re-absorb every last molecule of aych-two-oh distending your gut to a third world belly. That silky soft tofu in what appears to be mapo tofu but is actually some strange concoction of the mad scientist back in the “kitchen” will constipate you harder than sandpaper-wrapped bricks through a drinking straw, and yet, alternating with fire-rrhea from prescription dosages of hot sauce you were forced to use to numb the pain of blandness. Fluid retention in your muscles and joints will transform your once slender, lithe blogging fingers into tiny tugid balloons that are so stiff that you can’t type anything but asdf all at once until four days later.

Why? Why must you hide your Panda Express behind a very heavy veil of NaCl?? Why, PF, why?!?!

pf chang's santa monica, los angeles, ca - wonton soup
deceptively rehydrating
pf chang's santa monica, los angeles, ca - mapo tofu
what the ‘fu?!

If you think the sodium bloat is bad, let’s not even talk about the accompanying cheap hangover from choking down every bite of with two gulps of some appropriately Asian themed mango-rin lychee martini.

Really, though, I have to hand it to PF for accomplishing what I have to assume was the goal – making Chinese food accessible to tourists who visit “big cities” like LA, spend the day at 3rd Street Promenade shopping at Gap and Banana Republic, and then eschew Houston’s for a more “ethnic LA” experience…at PF Chang’s.

Now before I have some ‘splainin’ to do about why we ended up at PF Chang’s in the first place, and you better damn well be sure that there is a good reason why I’d dare show my face before the stone statue of a Chinese horse, I have a word, or 250 or so, about Zagat, because according to the “little” “red” “book,” PF Chang’s “is in the same league” “as ABC Seafood,” which is “real dimsum” in “C-town” (for those “in the know”), and Akbar, “Indian,” but “don’t worry” because it’s “still 4 points higher” than Islands. (Zagat friend, you know who you are, please don’t be mad. You will see, I ain’t mad atcha.)

Zagat is a curious thing.

I used to live and dine by Zagat. It was my Bible. It was my Koran. It was my Torah. Zagat was the dictionary, thesaurus, and Funk & Wagnalls all rolled into one handy, concise little 4” by 9” burgundy covered book of which I had multiple copies – one in my glovebox, one on my nightstand, and one on top of the magazines in my bathroom. Zagat was my everything.

But then one day, I asked myself…”Sarah, you hot little thing, how much do you trust restaurant guides?”

And my hot little self replied, “Not much.”

You see, I love the idea of a restaurant guide – a handy little book to which I can refer when I need inspiration for a reservation, simple descriptions of cuisine, menu, and prices when I a place to eat with specific parameters, even a quick address or telephone number. However, I realized that restaurant guides comes in several guises, one of which is the aforementioned objective directory, and one of which includes “reviews” and “ratings.”

Hm. Reviews and ratings. Those are what get me.

Now when the restaurant guide is filled with reviews from one person, or even a small group of people whom have all been identified (not necessarily by name, but by taste preference), it is easy to determine, for myself, whether I trust the reviews. I simply have to find out whether our tastes are similar. For example, if there happened to be a restaurant guide written by the man of my restaurant writing dreams whose first name starts with J, last names rhymes with gold, I would use it, knowing already what his tastes are in general, where we have similarities, and where we differ.

But when the reviews are quotes from a massive unidentified pool, culled together by an equally unidentifiable editorship, and the ratings are simply averages of the average anonymous person, there is no way for me to know. You nor I have the same taste as some manufactured “average person,” who loves Cheesecake Factory and…PF Chang’s.

I understand that Zagat is democratic. It is the voice of the people. It represents what the majority want, need, like. But we all know what happens when we let a very large majority make decisions. They vote the way a Hollywood actor tells them to vote, and the final outcome represents the lowest common denominator. That’s scary.

I am not saying that Zagat is a bad thing, because in all honesty, I have nothing but respect for what they are trying to accomlish. They provide a fabulous compendium of basic restaurant stats, and give a baseline review that correponds to the collective average. If you keep that in mind – each review is a manipulated collective average – then Zagat will stay in your glovebox so you can gab it when you realize you left the printout of the googlemaps to Hatfield’s on your desk.

However, it still pains me to think that Jerry and Belinda on their vacation from Dayton, OH to LA will turn to Zagat to decide where to have dinner on the second night of their stay and end up at PF Chang’s because it got a high rating, and wouldn’t you know it? The PF Chang’s in their neighborhood is the best restaurant in town (!), so they’re going to skip rollerblading the next day because they feel sluggish, heavy, and bloated after eating Chicken Lettuce Wraps at PF Chang’s. That is still what bothers me about Zagat.

So the question still remains. Why and how did we end up at PF Chang’s?

Panda Express was closed.

** a year ago today, i was almost, almost famous **

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{ 27 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Mensch71 November 6, 2006 at 2:47 am

I also went there (or at least to the outpost here in the middle of the Mitten). It wasn’t even pretty.

The saving grace came in the form of the wonton soup (oddly enough). Which is good and generous enough for a family of 4. I managed to eat the entire bowl myself. That said… it’s not worth the trip!

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2 Anonymous November 6, 2006 at 2:50 am

You are a very brave woman for admitting you went.

It’ll be even braver if you admit that you liked it.

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3 Colleen Cuisine November 6, 2006 at 3:32 am

The best is the South Park episode where Towlie is a waiter at PF Changs…

“Do you want your Chang sauce spicy or miiiiild?”

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4 Julian Hsu November 6, 2006 at 3:20 pm

Funny, I was just having this conversation with a certain unnamed brother in law about “Paul Fleming” Chang’s China Bistro. ;-)

As for spicy or mild, more like Sssssalty.

Julian

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/P._F._Chang's_China_Bistro

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5 Androo November 7, 2006 at 12:16 am

I have never understood the appeal of PF Chang’s, particularly when more sumptuous delights can be had for a fraction of the price. I suppose “ethnic” dining can be somewhat intimidating to the casual diner, but I sort of like having to deal with curt Chinese staff when asking for more tea. It makes it seem…I don’t know…authentic. My Chinese relatives don’t pull vocal punches, so maybe I’m just used to it.

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6 Eddie Lin November 7, 2006 at 2:13 am

Sarah,

Why the hell were you there anyway? Was it a first date? If so, will there be a second?

I personally have never dined at Pseudo(Chinese)Food Chang’s but wouldn’t pass it up if I was invited. I hear they have a sweet bar.

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7 Anonymous November 8, 2006 at 7:43 am

“dash back to the hostess waving the blinking pager like a 16 year-old at her first underground rave.”

What a perfect description.

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8 Nicolas November 8, 2006 at 6:32 pm

Chang`s is one of my favourite place in LA.

Nicolas

find it! love it! sell/buy it!

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9 Emily November 8, 2006 at 9:59 pm

PF Changs is “safe”. Unfortunately, a lot of Americans aren’t as adventurous food-wise as you and I.
The Singapore Street Noodles and Chicken with Black Bean Sauce are pretty good – but everything else that I have had there was bland/sub-par.
Regardless, they do have an AMAZING ASIAN PEAR MOJITO (why I go)

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10 Emily November 8, 2006 at 9:59 pm

PF Changs is “safe”. Unfortunately, a lot of Americans aren’t as adventurous food-wise as you and I.
The Singapore Street Noodles and Chicken with Black Bean Sauce are pretty good – but everything else that I have had there was bland/sub-par.
Regardless, they do have an AMAZING ASIAN PEAR MOJITO (why I go)

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11 djjewelz November 9, 2006 at 4:21 am

I’m not even going to comment on PF Chang’s “Chinese” food, but totally off topic, you are an internet superstar! I was reading another random site, found you, then found you again, then you were all over the place. Keep up the great work! I can see why you don’t have as much time for DL these days.

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12 Anonymous November 9, 2006 at 5:46 am

that is a surprise. we have one in chicago, too (and a China Grill). of course we only have two Chinatowns and none of which are nearly as big as yours. but yeah why would people want China Grill/ Chang’s when Chinatown is 15 minutes away and WAY cheaper and way better tasting?? because of trendiness! i’m still surprised though, doesn’t LA have any cool trendy more authentic Chinese restaurants?

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13 Xericx November 9, 2006 at 8:44 am

I have still never been here.

I like my chinese restaurants dirty, with indifferent service and great food!

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14 Anonymous November 9, 2006 at 7:02 pm

I live in the greater L.A. region and I went to P.F. Chang’s for the first time a couple days ago.I liked it, but I must admit that the small Chinese take-out place down the street from me is better. The food is supergood and they even do home delivery.Definitely not trendy though!

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15 Anonymous November 10, 2006 at 1:45 am

I think Chinese food would be so much better if it wasn’t served in a dirty restaurant. Being Chinese myself, and having a quiet a sensitive stomach, I don enjoy the ethnic experience of dining in a dirty place. I like my table lined with fresh paper, not grease-mopped by a semi-wet towel that had been wetted by somebody’s left over tea. I think the appeal of PF Chang is that it seems like a clean, ambient place to dine. I haven’t been there myself because every time we attempted, the line was out of this world.

Sanitation is extremely important to me, as it was to Howard Hughes and J Edward Hoover, and is to Howie Mandel. Germphobes.

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16 djjewelz November 10, 2006 at 2:48 am

Having grown up with the B’s and C’s of MPK, as long as the place doesn’t smell like:

1. a damp towel
2. a wet wooden chopstick

It’s a winner!

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17 Anonymous November 10, 2006 at 3:46 pm

Ever been to Mao’s kitchen: http://www.maoskitchen.com/ … not authentic either, but way better than PFChangs. I think there are lots of people that like the (aparent) consistency of these large chain restaurants.

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18 sarah November 10, 2006 at 6:07 pm

mensch71: yeah, i think the wonton soup was the best of everything i’ve ever eaten there (and yes, i am admitting i have been there more than once). is it snowing where you are!??!

anonymous #1: ah, i’m just brave. not braver.

colleen cuisine: hm, towlie might have been our waiter, too.

julian: when i first learned that pf was paul fleming, i almost fell over, but it explained a LOT.

androo: you are so right! i swear when it comes to indian, mexican and asian, i don’t feel right when it’s totally nice. why is that??

eddie: it wasn’t a date, but trust me, if it were, and he had chosen pf chang’s, that would have been the first and last date. i mean if we’re going to go chain, i want something good. like in-n-out with byob, don’t you think?!?!

anonymous #2: except that the raver is probably smiling and happy.

nicolas: really? yikes.

emily: i agree, and to be quite honest, there are instances when the safety of pf chang’s is necessary. i can’t think of any, but they have to be out there, right?

djjewelz: you found me?!?! where? how can you be so sure that’s me?! ;)

and…a wet wooden chopstick?

anonymous #3: i am jealous of you!!! i {heart} chicago! and as for trendy chinese…that’s an oxymoron. LOL! although, i think mr. chow is trendy chinese. then again, i haven’t eaten there yet so i have no idea about their authenticity. but at least mr. chow himself is chinese!

xericx: eek! dirty is one thing, but i hear you on the strangely attentive-yet-aloof service.

robyn: cute blog! and those chinese take out places that have names like “#1 $1 ABC Best Chinese Fast Food” are awesome.

anonymous #4: i would say that pf chang’s is most certainly clean, but once you eat there, especially if you’re chinese, you will see :)

anonymous #5: funny. yes. i have, and i will be writing it up shortly :)

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19 Chubbypanda November 10, 2006 at 8:28 pm

Hey Sarah,

So, the company that owns PF Chang’s has a Panda Express-style, casual dining version of the crap they serve at PF Chang’s. Ever heard of Pei Wei? Same company, mostly the same food, same high prices. But, a more casual “experience” amd even crappier quality.

– Chubbypanda

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20 Anonymous November 10, 2006 at 9:41 pm

Did Mao’s reopen? Last time I tried going they were redoing the kitchen or something. Agree that it is a fun place to eat (and drink your own wine!).

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21 H. C. November 11, 2006 at 1:04 am

OMG snortfully funny to read–hopefully you don’t feel the same way about Panda Inn (Panda Express in a more expensive veil?) ~ some of the stuff there I actually dig.

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22 hermz November 16, 2006 at 1:45 am

except that the raver is probably smiling and happy.
… and not feeling as hungry.

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23 hermz November 16, 2006 at 1:45 am

except that the raver is probably smiling and happy.
… and not feeling as hungry.

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24 Anonymous December 6, 2006 at 10:31 am

you people are so funny to me.. we all have our own taste.. BUT for you people to be bashing PF Chang’s because it has Paul Flemmings intials.. like that makes the place not Chinese… what you fail to realize is that the “Chang’s” part actually comes from a chef in LA LA LAND… he use to own and be the chef of The Mandarin.. So, gasp, a real live Chinese person had direct input in the original menu…shocking eh!! Should we deport him out of your pretentious I NEVER EAT AT CHAINS world.. the company went public years ago and neither one have anything to do with it anymore.. no one claims that they were not American-ize or whatever… it is a chain people!! get over it!! and people do enjoy it ..the food, drinks, and social aspects.. And get ready for this… I have actually seen Asian people in there…DOUBLE GASP I have been to some of the mom and pop chinese places and scared to eat anything from such dirty places!!!

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25 sarah December 6, 2006 at 5:36 pm

chubby: omg! i saw a pei wei when i was in The OC the other day! LOL! i asked Mom, wtf is that?!?! is that like panda express!??!?! LOL!

anonymous #6: mao’s is open! i went there about a month ago.

h.c.: “snortfully.” i think i may have to use that word.

hermz: totally. ;)

anonymous #7: i agree. we all have our own taste, and while i do make fun of superficial things like the restaurant’s name being based on a non-Asian (Paul Fleming), and it being utterly americanized, it still did not taste good, particularly for how much it costs.

there is nothing wrong with “americanized” as long as it tastes good. i sometimes do have problems when we start to throw around judgments like “it’s authentic,” or “not authentic” or whatever, because in the end, shouldn’t it just matter if it tastes good to you? sometimes the most “authentic” things are disgusting to me. LOL! at the same time though, i do understand that some of us like to eat “authentic,” and though they may recoil at the taste because it unfamiliar, weird, etc., learn to appreciate it for its authenticity over the actual taste.

sorry for the rambling :)

but anyway, it is all a matter of personal taste.

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26 Anonymous December 14, 2006 at 3:03 am

disagree with your article…pf changs is one of our favorite places to eat…service is above the average and food is great. i love the buildings, they all are different and for the price (far better than i would expect in such beautiful buildings) it is a great meal…two people can drink wine and eat great for $35.00…get a life and quit bashing great restarants because you can’t figure out how to make a living…pf changs is great, try it.

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27 Anonymous January 5, 2007 at 5:08 am

i went to p.f. chang’s today…i was the ONLY chinese person in the place… to me that says A LOT about authenticity. i gotta tell you – sitting there in a dim space, with round booths, loud 80’s top 40 pop, being served by blondie-there was ZERO “chineseness”! YUCK.

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