Last week, P.F. Chang’s opened its first, swanky full-service restaurant in New York City at 113 University Place, at 13th Street, in a 7,000-square-foot space that spans three floors. A spokesperson told Eater earlier this year that the location is part of a brand refresh, with updated lighting, sound systems, and staff uniforms.
Based in Arizona, with over 300 locations around the world (including China), P.F. Chang’s was founded in the mid-’90s by Paul Fleming and Philip Chiang — the son of the late Cecilia Chiang, an ambassador of regional Chinese food to America, having opened the Mandarin in San Francisco in the early 1960s.
With an increasing emphasis on to-go spots, (with two open and one more on the way in NYC) P.F. Chang’s has expanded beyond suburban strip malls where their restaurants formerly resided. With a goal of moving into cities, its presence could be seen by some as an affront to the many well-established regional Chinese restaurants and Chinatowns — especially at a time when Chinese restaurants and neighborhoods have been uniquely affected by COVID — and the restaurant chain got millions in PPP money.
On opening night, Eater critics Robert Sietsema and Ryan Sutton descended on the pan-Asian menu of appetizers, sushi, dim sum, soups and salads, mains, as well as noodles, rice, and desserts.
On the decor
Robert: This is a clubstaurant. There’s loud disco music. There’s a series of gilded Shaanxi-style terracotta soldiers, and yet the menu is not particularly Chinese.
Ryan: It’s a little weird to see servers walking around in ornamental Mandarin collar uniforms. It feels like a 1950s Epcot Center version of China designed for Long Islanders who insist on driving into Manhattan in their Range Rovers. I think we’ve advanced past this as a city. We don’t need a Chinese restaurant where the bathroom door handles are shaped like spiky dragons.
On the ‘famous’ lettuce wraps
Robert: We got all the signature dishes, including the chicken lettuce wrap, which they claim is their most famous. The worst dish of all to me was Chang’s spicy chicken ($24.50). It was just little globules of white meat coated in sugar syrup, with no spiciness whatsoever.
Ryan: I thought the lettuce wrap was fine, but it also had a hint of funk that seemed to betray the fact that it came from a real animal.
Robert: There was as much Japanese stuff on the menu as Chinese. They had edamame. They had shishito peppers. They had California rolls oozing mayonnaise and fake crab, at $15 per roll. The menu is aimed at people who don’t know what Chinese food is and don’t care to find out.
Ryan: Robert, it’s almost disappointing how much I agree with you. We usually take diametrically opposing viewpoints.
I don’t think I’ve ever had a bad version of mapo tofu until I came to P.F. Chang’s. We all realize there’s enough room in this city for culinary experimentation: but if you call this mapo tofu, you risk bringing in people who’ve never had mapo tofu — who’ve never had Sichuan cuisine — and giving them the wrong idea about one of the world’s great dishes.
Robert: It is a cultural crime. This is food completely unmoored from its flavor and underpinnings and history and meaning.
On the desserts
Ryan: The desserts, man: Can you really call something the Great Wall of chocolate?
Robert: It’s a giant mediocre six-layer chocolate cake with little dabs of fruit compote around it. It was atrocious. At $14, at least it was shareable. The banana spring rolls or egg rolls or whatever they called them were much worse. The bananas were unripe and had no flavor.
Ryan: Leaning on the Great Wall feels like an anachronistic western trope that views China as an ancient place built around fortifications and keeping out invaders. It’s a backward view of a modernizing country with the second-largest economy in the world and breathtakingly diverse foodways.
On the service
Robert: I was asked 13 times — I counted — if I wanted another beer. My answer was an emphatic “no” every time, but there was always somebody there, inviting me to have another drink.
Ryan: It was almost like robots — how frequently they came up and just checked on everything. Just give us just a little bit of space, if that’s all right.
Robert: There were corporate suits everywhere. I’m going to remember this scene for the rest of my life. It was really quite wonderful in its own way: This is everything that I don’t want a restaurant to be.
On P.F. Chang’s opening a full-blown restaurant in New York
Robert: I think it’s a big deal that P.F. Chang’s has opened here. For decades, the city was a bulwark against all of the half-assed restaurant chains trying to get in. (No longer.)
Ryan: It’s important when any restaurant opens that takes up this much space and over multiple sprawling floors.
Robert: Do we not have enough really great Chinese restaurants in town? All of them — every single one of them — is better than P.F. Chang’s.
Ryan: My first reaction is to say, “Don’t go here. Go to Sichuan Mountain House. Go to Xi’an Famous Foods. Go to literally any good Chinese takeout or non-takeout restaurant in the city, and you’ll have a better time.”
Robert: I would say that this is an absolute failure of corporate leadership when it comes to P.F. Chang’s, that they didn’t care enough about New York City to come here and realize that we have lots of independently-owned, mom-and-pop Chinese restaurants. What would it have hurt to make the food a little spicier, to throw a little onion and garlic here and there, to make the food exciting?
Ryan: That’s it, Robert. You don’t need a Red Lobster in Marseille. It’s hard for us not to see eye to eye in a place like this.