Places like this represent a new trend in the marketing of what is essentially bad fast food towards a more lucrative audience. A couple of years ago, my new job took me to a set of offices that were situated close to a new retail complex in the Pittsburgh area. The complex was anchored by a large cineplex and a few “box restaurants” and a few more “box stores”. At some point, one of the “box restaurants” that opened was a chain of apparently high reputation called P.F. Chang’s. At the front of the place stood two huge stone horses that were, apparently, meant to remind one of the terra cotta horses at the tomb of the First Emperor of China. Between these two horses sat the sign, in large vaguely Charlie Chan type letters: P.F. Chang’s China Bistro.
For months after this place opened, you couldn’t get into the place without waiting more than two hours. It was always full. It was full at lunch, dinner, late dinner, after the movies. There was not a time at which the place was not full. So, obviously we folks at work had to try it out.
As you enter the place, you are greeted by a huge mural done vaguely in the style of a Chinese scroll. You almost expect to be greeted by a hyperactive immigrant from Hong Kong who you can’t understand. But this doesn’t happen. Instead, a nice person who you can understand perfectly leads you to a table. You look over the menu. The menu is filled with the standard assortment of American Chinese dishes that have been the core of thousands of cheap takeout joints for decades. There are dumplings, there are ribs, there is Ma-Po Tofu, there is fried rice, etc.
But, what you also realize is that this isn’t a cheap greasy Chinese takeout joint. This is a high overhead, very expensive greasy Chinese takeout joint. But, while extremely expensive, the food is no better than your typical greasy Chinese takeout joint. You order an $8 plate of pot stickers that you can buy frozen in a bag for $4 for 50. You order the ribs, they are chewy and not sweet. You order a series of gloppy greasy entreés with no real distinctive flavor. You order Ma-Po Tofu and it has frozen peas and carrots in it. The dan-dan noodles taste like spaghetti and hoisin sauce.
So, what do you get for all the extra money you spent? As far as I can tell all you get is a level of pretension and self-importance that is insulting. The horse statues, the “Chinese” lettering, the murals and so on are just the beginning. Before serving your food, some genius in marketing at P.F. Chang’s Inc has dictated to the staff that they must give you a live demo of their “favorite” little nugget of Chinese Cuisine. So the poor student slob can’t just serve you your food and escape, she has to sit there at the table and proclaim the wonders of the P.F. Chang’s secret favorite Chinese dipping sauce that you should put on everything. What is this sauce? As far as I can tell, Hoisin sauce, soy, pepper sauce and maybe some oil. In other words, it’s all just a humiliating sham. It’s as if you went to an Italian restaurant and they serenaded you with the magic of their olive oil and ketchup bread sauce. Basically, what P.F. Chang’s and their brethren (other examples include Bravo! Italian Kitchen, Ted’s Montana Grille, Olive Garden, Don Pablo’s Mexican Kitchen, Cheesecake Factory, and so on) are after is to serve crappy food on nicer plates and separate you from more of your money so their margins are higher without them actually doing any real work. They crank out the same cookie cutter generic food as McDonald’s, KFC, and all the rest, but they put on an elaborate show to try and make you think they are doing better.
Lost in all of this is the fact that even in a relative backwater like Pittsburgh there are smaller, cheaper, better places that are far more deserving of your dollars. They are found on the sides of roads, in shopping centers, and off of highways. They are run by real people who care about making decent food that is not so much Authentic as at least genuinely distinctive and fresh. But, the tide is against places that serve Real Food because they don’t have the connections needed to get the huge spaces and exposure that even a crappy shithole like P.F. Chang’s can manage just on sheer volume. This is just another case where the Big Evil Coporation is crushing the forces of light and goodness.
So, do everyone a favor and the next time you are to be dragged to P.F. Chang’s, find the hole in wall Chinese place that is a bit further away, or the little Vietnamese noodle joint just down the road, or the street vendor selling fresh Falafel, or the little South Indian shack with the great paratha, or that tiny little place near the railroad tracks with the killer BBQ pork. Go anywhere else and get anything but the frozen cardboard tasteless shit that they will serve you at P.F. Chang’s. Do it for little guy. Do some good in the world. It will make me happy. Just this once, tell THE MAN to fuck off.
This is a reprint of a page I wrote a long time ago. Go here for the original plus all the wacky comments.