Merrill Shindler - Senior Zagat Editor

Merrill Shindler

L.A. Senior Zagat Editor

For Whom the Bell Chang’s

To survive in the highly competitive world of nationwide restaurants, you have to strike a careful balance between consistency -- and a willingness to change. A Big Mac is a Big Mac is a Big Mac. And yet, with regular irregularity, fans of Mickey D's show up for McRib sandwiches -- a break from routine, that makes everything taste that much fresher. In the case of PF Chang's, diners can always count on Chang's Chicken Lettuce Wraps, their Salt & Pepper Calamari, their Northern-Style Spareribs, their Crispy Honey Chicken. But these days, there's something more -- more for those who crave something more.

Gently, carefully, PF Chang's has begun to explore the very tasty world of the cooking of Southeast Asia with a handful of dishes from Thailand -- and an acknowledgement of the flavors of Vietnamese as well. These days, the menu includes such temptations Thai Basil Greens Salad, Vietnamese Crab Salad, Thai Chicken Noodle Salad and, for a limited time, Pad Thai Noodles (with chicken, shrimp, or both). Very tasty stuff -- and hopefully a harbinger of more to come. At the same time, there's also a Gluten-Free Menu, with 16 "GF" dishes -- including Crab Fried Rice, Chang's Spicy Chicken, and Singapore Street Noodles. Making what was already America's most popular family-friendly Chinese restaurant -- that much more family-friendly.

With dozens of branches from coast to coast, from Boston to Boca Raton and Bethesda to Bellevue (including several dozen in California), it's time to stop viewing the PF Chang's China Bistro chain as a clever novelty (born in the very non-Asian enclave of Scottsdale, Arizona in 1993) – a clever attempt at creating an authentic Chinese restaurant in a user-friendly setting that won't scare away those who find Monterey Park a little too real. In a very real sense, PF Chang's is how many American perceive Chinese food. It may not be as ubiquitous as the Panda Inn chain. But it also comes across as more serious in terms of its cuisine. Chang's is the bellwether for where we're going, en masse, in terms of the diverse cooking of China.

The menu is large at Chang's, even though it's something of a greatest hits list, offering about 130 dishes – minimalist in terms of local Chinese restaurants, but still plenty to choose from), with a Pan-China selection of dishes from Canton, Shanghai, Szechwan, Hunan and Mongolia. This is a Chinese restaurant for those who want cloth napkins, waiters who ask if they're enjoying their meal, a glass of something other than generic white wine poured from a gallon bottle.

At PF Chang's, the style is brisk, breezy, open, light and very, well, California. If anything, this is a child of Chinois on Main, with its seats at the kitchen counter, allowing diners to spend a pleasant evening watching the chefs do what they do.

In terms of food, PF




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