With lines of people queued up between the two huge horse sculptures
facing Route 1, P.F. Chang’s, the new venue at MarketFair, is
obviously the hottest ticket in town.
So what’s this "China bistro," as Chang’s describes itself, all about?
First off it’s more bistro than Chinese. Those horses – replicas of
the kiln-fired terra-cotta figures guarding the mausoleum of the first
emperor of all China (and including an army of 7,000 life-size
soldiers, chariots, and horses) – guard the entrance to an equally
impressive interior. Inside replicas of two warriors from that terra
cotta army flank the large dining room, and sweeping marble bar.
That’s right, bar, with hundreds of exotic cocktails, wines, and
beers, including a draft beer from China that tastes more like ginger
ale than beer but that definitely will set the breathalyzer off if you
have one too many. Even with its takeout menu, P.F. Chang’s is to the
old-fashioned Chinese restaurant as TGI Friday’s is to the corner
It’s a concept restaurant, one of more than 130 now in place in
upscale locations across the country, founded in 1993 by Paul Fleming
(that’s the P.F.) and Phillip Chiang (Chang’s obviously). Fleming is
never short of concepts. He was a mover and shaker in the Ruth’s Chris
Steakhouse. Following on P.F. Chang’s success he has a "fast casual"
Chinese concept, Pei Wei, with nearly 100 restaurants now open. And he
is rolling out another concept, Taneko Tavern, which will feature
Japanese food in a Chang’s-like ambience.
As at any good concept restaurant, the staff at P.F. Chang’s mixes a
little show business with the food business. A U.S. 1 contingent at
the new MarketFair venue was greeted by a cheerful waitress, who
offered a mini-course on the uses of the six oils and sauces pre-set
on the table. The white vinegar can tone down a dish you think is too
spicy. The chili oil can spice up any dish you like. And then she
proceeds to add a tiny spoonful of hot mustard and an equally tiny
spoonful of chili paste to the potsticker sauce to create "our own
special recipe." There, right before your eyes, P.F. Chang’s secret
sauce is created.
Secret sauces notwithstanding, Chang’s Asian fusion menu is based on
standard Chinese fare. Appetizers include Peking dumplings filled with
pork or vegetables ($5.50), crab wontons filled with spicy plum sauce
($6.95), and seared ahi tuna rolled in Chinese spices ($7.95). On our
recent visit the Cantonese roasted duck was served with steamed wheat
buns, cucumbers, scallions, and plum and hoisin sauces ($14.95). Other
entrees include what the menu calls "Traditions," like beef with
broccoli ($7.95 at lunch; $10.95 at dinner), sweet and sour chicken
($9.95); and mu shu pork ($10.25).
Some of the more unusual items include wild Alaskan Sockeye salmon
salad ($8.95), wok-seared lamb marinated with scallions and sesame and
served with cilantro over shredded lettuce ($12.95), shrimp with
candied walnuts tossed in a creamy lemon sauce with honeydew melon
($13.95), and double pan-fried noodles (semi-crisp egg noodles
stir-fried with vegetables and served with a choice of beef, pork,
chicken, or shrimp ($9.25). There are eight vegetarian entrees and
sides, ranging from Sichuan-style asparagus or green beans ($5.95) to
vegetarian ma po tofu ($7.95).
About those lines. The staff at P.F. Chang’s notes that long waits
(would you believe three hours?) are common on weekend nights and that
reservations should be made weeks, not days, in advance. Delays can
even slow down people looking for a quick business lunch. The dining
room opens at 11 a.m., and all tables are sometimes taken by 11:15. By
2 p.m. or so the crush is over. But you can wait at the bar (or take
your drink to the outside seating area). Or you can eat at the bar.
The best bet is an old-fashioned concept: Call ahead.
P.F. Chang’s, Market Fair, 3545 Route 1, Princeton. 609-799-5163.