Other than a predilection for sugar bowl and salt cellar, there is nothing particularly offensive, nor exceptionally endearing, in the overpriced menu. Chang's bears just the faintest resemblance to real Chinese cuisine, and that faint resemblance is in name only — certainly not in spiciness or use of garlic, chili peppers or peppercorns, star anise or ginger, bean curds or fish sauces.
I found the food visually appealing enough on the plate. But there were no bold flavors, no deep colors, no fresh aromatics wafting from the formula- and portion-controlled kitchen. The flavors were Americanized and unrecognizable, both gastronomically and culturally. I saw only a couple of other diners ever using chopsticks, and no gathering of Chinese families — in fact few Asians at all.
P.F. Chang's is the brainchild of Paul Fleming, who also helped develop the concept of Fleming's Steakhouse, one of which sits across the Stanford Shopping Center parking lot adjacent to Chang's. Chang is a derivation of the name of chef Philip Chiang, who helped develop the concept with Fleming. (Chiang's mother, Cecelia, owned the famed Mandarin restaurant in San Francisco.)
Neither Fleming nor Chiang are part of the 190 Chang empire operations, though. The company trades on the NASDAQ and is seriously big business, where control trumps artistry.
I found the Palo Alto restaurant ever busy, with patrons awaiting tables noon and night. The place was clean and inviting inside and out, the reception friendly and helpful.
The decor was hectic and reminded me of Piet Mondrian's "Broadway Boogie Woogie" with its contained frenetic energy and blocks of stuttering colors: reds, yellows, blues and greens. It has a 1950s feel, but with contemporary application. It's not a tranquil place to harmonize or dine, but it is pretty.
A tray of condiments, oils and pastes arrived at the table soon after we were seated. The waitperson asked how spicy to blend a sauce for our taste buds. By our third visit, we referred to this practice as The Tame Sauce Ritual because the "hottest" of the condiments was still docile. It didn't matter what portion of what ingredients were combined; the results varied little. It wasn't needed either, as most dishes came with their own sauce. The ritual was just a little tableside razzle-dazzle.
Starters and small plates varied in quality, from spare ribs ($8.95) — a worthy appetizer, meaty and flavorful — to crab wontons ($6.95), which were served with sticky plum sauce that reminded me of cough medicine. The crab was vaguely in evidence inside the crunchy wrappers, but only if I concentrated.
The Chang's chicken lettuce wraps ($7.95) were fine, albeit a tad salty. The pile of crisp iceberg lettuce with quick-cooked diced chicken came as a generous portion with plenty to share.
The dumplings ($5.75) were, in fact, pot stickers. We opted for the pork-filled, although shrimp and vegetable fills were available as well. The waiter recommended ordering them fried as opposed to steamed — "more flavor," he said. The pot stickers passed muster.
Egg rolls ($4.95) were hand-rolled with marinated pork and vegetables. The accompanying sweet-and-sour mustard sauce struck a good balance, but the egg rolls sat in a pool of grease.
Regarding entrees, the ground chicken and eggplant ($10.95) was the best dish we had at Chang's. Luscious chunks of eggplant had been stir-fried with scallions in a (finally) not too salty soy-chili pepper sauce. Loads of flavor. Another chicken dish, crispy honey chicken ($12.95), was lightly battered and nicely crisped, but coated in a sweet sticky sauce over a bed of not-all-the-way-cooked-through rice sticks.
The menu indicated that the beef a la Sichuan ($13.95) was the restaurant's "spiciest beef dish." It probably was, but still only hinted at piquancy. Served with julienne celery and carrots, the beef was chewy.
Chengdu spiced lamb ($13.95) was barely warm marinated lamb, wok-caramelized and tossed with cumin, mint, tomatoes and yellow onions. This would have been the best dish had it been delivered to the table hot.
Sichuan from the sea ($14.95) were wok-tossed scallops in a red chili pepper garlic sauce. The sea mollusks were succulent but the sauce was over-sweet, masking the subtle scallop flavors. And kung pao shrimp ($14.95), with peanuts, chili peppers and scallions, might have been good had it not been way too salty.
There were no busboys; servers now do their own cleanup. Often, plates were not cleared until the next course arrived. Then again, they don't have to share tips, either, and P.F. Chang's isn't the only restaurant to put busboys on the endangered species list. Other than that, the waitstaff was well trained, informed and eager to please.
I've never experienced these kinds of desserts before in a Chinese restaurant: lemon dream (lemon curd), apple pie, s'mores, cheesecake, chocolate cake and carrot cake. Each came in a little jigger priced at $2. Tasty but incongruous.
There were giant-sized desserts as well, including off-tasting banana spring rolls with unlikable coconut-pineapple ice cream ($5.95), and The Great Wall of Chocolate ($7.95), a behemoth six-layer cake wedge subdued with raspberry sauce. The waitstaff brought to the table visual examples of all, made from wax.
Happy hour is a good deal. Daily from 3 to 6 p.m., both cocktails and many of the appetizers are value-priced. There's a full bar that's separated, happily, from the dining room, as well as a thoughtful and fairly priced wine list. A gluten-free menu is available.
Overall, if you hanker for some filling non-Chinese Chinese food, P.F. Chang's is the place for you. It's very pretty inside.
P.F. Chang's China Bistro
900 Stanford Shopping Center, Palo Alto
Sunday-Thursday 11 a.m.-10 p.m.
Friday-Saturday 11 a.m.-11 p.m.