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P.F. Chang's- crash, bang, fail

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P.F. Chang's

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I've called Chinese restaurants in America 'ubiquitous' many times, and I tested the theory myself last year, as I drove my way across the USA, from east coast to west. Hoping for good luck when getting off the highway and relying on the recommendations of the locals to point me to a decent dinner, I discovered that in fact yes, Asian restaurants (most often Chinese) are everywhere.

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While the idea of 'sameness' in that genre is enormously well-known, I thought I'd take a look at something on a larger scale, and had a look at P.F. Chang's, the corporate American chain attempting to do the same thing.

Well, since it is a chain, it's best to bust myths, and I'll start with the obvious: there is no such fellow as P.F. Chang. The P.F. is a tribute to Paul Fleming, of the known steakhouse chain. It was his vision that resulted in the concept as it is today. And the 'Chang'? The Chinese cuisine consultant they hired was none other than Phillip Chiang, son of noteworthy San Francisco chef Cecilia Chiang, of The Mandarin. Cut out the 'I' to make it more pronounceable, and you have a perfectly generic Asian name bereft of any real Asian influence.

The same sort of process applied to the décor. It's a classy example of what I'd call Vaguely Asian. A couple of items to lend it an Asian flavor- but nothing like you'd find in a real Chinese restaurant, strip-mall or otherwise. The most visible thing is most always the terracotta figures. Whether out front or in the lobby, the traditional burial ground statues are certainly likely to catch attention. It's possible that they were responsible for some of the walk-in traffic in the first few locations- they definitely invite questions!

I can't help but wonder what the Elder Lady Chiang might think of this now thoroughly established chain, but I sincerely hope no one brings it to her attention, because the tragedy of dining there might kill her.

I'm not entirely sure what happened to cause the massive rift between the food at P.F. Chang's and what independent or small-time Chinese restaurants serve. If a restaurant owner who might not be able to navigate the supermarket in the town they live in has no problem getting consistent and better than average product quality, why would a nationwide chain with ready access to all sorts of supply caches yield such lousy results?

Even sneaking in the re-using of dressings and sauces (spot that Orange Peel Chicken repeated with beef and shrimp), the menu (at http://www.pfchangs.com/menu/ ) is an inconsistent mishmash of Asianesque miscellany that there isn't even a good way to quantify. And none of it that I've tried has been much good.

The lo mein is rubbery, the crab wontons bereft of all but the vaguest hint of crab, and the dumplings are overpriced lumps of disaster. The sauces other than curry have an undercurrent of (of all things!) sugary -bubblegum- to them.

I can't even begin to explain that, but I have a theory. There are mass-market frozen foods that bear the P.F. Chang's brand in the supermarket freezer cases. If they're anything at all like what's been put in front of me in the restaurants...

I'll level. This is the SF Bay Area- a generic place like P.F. Chang's has no place here. If you want Asian food, go find anywhere else. But if you want the feel of The Cheesecake Factory with some terracotta Chinese tomb décor to keep you company, feel free to drop in for a bite.

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