leave your inhibitions at the door
P.F. Chang’s, the popular nationwide chain of Chinese-American restaurants, opened this past week in Ann Arbor. Alongside it came a Bravo! Cucina Italiana in newly constructed buildings over at the mall. I first went to a Chang’s back when we lived in Chicago about 15 years ago and I remember liking it a lot. But the opening here in Ann Arbor presented a dilemma for me.
Before I get into that, let me tell you what isn’t a dilemma – my accepting the gracious invitation to dine there when they opened. I’m always open to getting opportunities like this. (Do you hear me, Range Rover?) The other thing that’s not a dilemma is posting my opinions, good or bad. To ease your minds, we went there a second time so that I can see how it was when they didn’t know me as a food writer, but as an everyday schmuck.
Anyway, here’s the problem – I dislike chains. I don’t mind Taco Bell and White Castles, but I go to those more out of necessity. Anything above regular fast food implies that you’re doing more than “grabbing a bite.” A restaurant with table service is more of a time commitment and involves more of a conscious decision to go there. And if I’m going to consciously choose to eat somewhere, 99 times out of a 100 I’m going to choose an independent, locally-owned restaurant. Unless I’m going to a chain restaurant for the purpose of blog fodder.
In order to survive, chain restaurants have to be generic, one-menu-fits-all affairs. But while the menus are packed with a wide variety of choices, the meals themselves are not packed with flavor. The food can’t just be for savvy diners in big cities. It has to be vanilla enough to appeal to suburbanites and hayseeds in the middle of Kansas.
So it really should be a no-brainer to avoid the new P.F. Chang’s here, right?
First off, there’s a complete lack of good Chinese food here in Ann Arbor. We literally have dozens of sushi restaurants and what feels like 954 Korean restaurants, but only a handful of strictly Chinese restaurants. There were two really good ones where most of the clientele were fresh-off-the-boat Chinese and they had two menus – one in broken English and the other in Chinese. They were pretty authentic. But the problem was that they were total dumps where I doubt cleanliness was a high priority. Others here in town are even seedier joints where it wouldn’t surprise me if their backrooms are filled with illicit mahjongg games and menus featuring naughty massages.
Compare that to the sleek, tasteful atmosphere at P.F. Changs –
You can actually take a date or a client there.
And did you notice the bar? That’s the other problem with local Chinese restaurants. The two or three restaurants that aren’t complete dumps (still nowhere near as beautiful as Chang’s) don’t serve alcohol.
So speaking of alcohol, we might as well start there.
Their wine list is pretty good with a decent selection of varietals and styles within each. Boom Boom had her favorite Chardonnay – La Crema and I had a glass of the S.A. Prum “Essence”, a Riesling from Mose-Saar-Ruwer. I ordered the Riesling because I thought the sweetness would work well with the spicy food. I was surprised to find that it wasn’t, but it was still serviceable.
I was happy to find that they have a few local beers as well:
Here’s what we ate
They were all pretty good, with very fresh ingredients and adequate levels of spice. The ribs were very tender and flavorful. I would’ve like the scallops to be seared, but understand that the breading is actually part of the meal. The Sichuan beef had great flavor, but a little heavy on the celery. I’ll give them a pass on not making the eggplant dish pretty as it was a custom-ordered dish. It tasted great, though. The Pad Thai was also excellent, definitely better than expected.
I’ve seen different versions of the same bumper sticker in Ann Arbor, Boulder, and Austin – “Keep (name of city) Weird”. It’s that same sentiment I described earlier where it’s better to shun the chains and big box stores and spend your money on small, local shops and restaurants. If you peruse the comment sections of local online publications, you’ll see a lot of people really passionate about it. So I expect that quite a few Ann Arborites will be fighting the good fight.
They don’t need to.
P.F. Chang’s is a great place to have dinner, but it doesn’t mean you have to abandon your locals. (Especially if you’re looking for those seedy activities.)
Have you ever been to P.F. Changs?