Chang's Condensed

Pei Wei Asian Diner stands above the rest of the fast-food Asian chains.

I am not sure why, but Tucson is definitely short on chain Asian restaurants.

Take Las Vegas, for example. Within the Sin City metro area, there are almost 40 Panda Express restaurants, as opposed to four in Tucson (and two of them are in malls). They keep multiplying like rabbits. Or Walgreens in Tucson.

This is good for the non-chain Asian restaurants here in the Old Pueblo. Unfortunately, there aren't a huge amount of those, either, and--with a few notable exceptions--many of the ones we have are sub-par, to put it nicely. Therefore, as someone who loves good, cheap Asian food, I strongly support any and all efforts to bring more Asian grub to town.

Enter Pei Wei Asian Diner. The first Tucson location opened a year or so ago on University Boulevard just off Euclid Avenue, and another's going up near Craycroft Road on Broadway Boulevard. At least one more may be on the way. Pei Wei is part of the same company as the universally popular P.F. Chang's China Bistro--a link that's touted on menus and in other places--so that bodes well for the restaurant. Some of the menu items are similar, such as the signature chicken lettuce wraps, at cheaper prices than the full-fledged Chang's.

I stopped by the restaurant for the first time on a recent weekday afternoon. I had to pick up something in the UA area, so I decided to check out Pei Wei for a late lunch. Even though it was 1:30, the restaurant, including the attached outdoor seating area, was still about three-quarters full, primarily with college students chowing down between classes.

I gazed at the giant menus that greet you after you walk in the main door. Appetizers include the aforementioned lettuce wraps, edamame (salted soy beans), potstickers, spring rolls, crab wontons and two soups: wonton along with sweet and sour. Several salads join the expected Asian fare, including noodle and rice bowl dishes (most of which are $6 with chicken, beef or vegetables with tofu; $7 with shrimp or scallops). Finally, 11 "signature dishes," such as coconut curry, an orange peel dish and kung pao, are offered (all $6.45 with veggies and tofu, $6.95 chicken, $7.95 beef, $9 shrimp or scallops).

I went to the counter and placed my order: Pei Wei pad Thai with chicken ($6) and a cup of wonton soup ($1.95, bowl for $3.75). With that, I sat down with my numbered token--you put it on an alligator clip at your table so servers know where to bring your food--and began my brief wait. Modern and vibrant, the décor is comfortable, with a primarily black-and-red color scheme. There's a half-yellow, half-wood wall, along with a red floor and wall lamps surrounded by what appear to be Chinese characters. The food prep area is on one side of the dining room, so you can watch your food being prepared, or just listen to the sizzling as you chat with a friend.

In near-record time, a young man brought me my wonton soup. It was mellow, with a lot of subtle tastes--carrots, scallions and small mushrooms swam in the small bowl along with the wontons. I enjoyed the various flavors, although some may wish that the soup had more oomph.

As Lenny Kravitz's "It Ain't Over Til It's Over" played overhead, I finished the soup, and my pad Thai was delivered. In one sense, it was just what I expected: rice noodles mixed with tofu, bean sprouts, scallions, egg, peanuts, cilantro, sweet-and-sour sauce and an unsqueezed lime wedge. It looked good, and I excitedly dug in. That leads to another sense, in which it wasn't what I expected: The menu notes that the pad Thai is a "spicy dish." Well, it wasn't--not in the least. Don't get me wrong--the dish was delicious, especially after spritzing the noodles with the lime, adding a bit of a citrusy bite to things--but I expected some pep, a little kick. Nonetheless, I enjoyed every bite, and was full with half the dish left. It was also delicious as a leftover.

The next day, I returned to check out some more of Pei Wei's fare, this time with Irene Messina. I ordered the lettuce wraps ($5.75) and honey-seared chicken ($6.95), and Irene got the Pei Wei spring rolls ($3.25 for two, $6.95 for six) and the Pei Wei sweet and sour with vegetables and tofu ($6.45). We decided to sit outside and enjoy the temperate November afternoon.

Irene liked the spring rolls. Containing cabbage, ginger, carrots, onions, shiitake mushrooms and glass noodles, they were crisp without being too oily. I stole a bite and was impressed. Meanwhile, I was in heaven with my lettuce wraps. The mixture of chicken, mushrooms, water chestnuts and scallion was tasty, and the iceberg lettuce leaves were wonderfully fresh; Irene wondered why the lettuce in the supermarket doesn't look that good. I could have munched through the lettuce wraps and been happily full, but I restrained myself for the entrée.

Pei Wei's winning streak continued with our main courses. My honey seared "crispy" chicken, with garlic, chili peppers and rice sticks was fine, although it wasn't quite what I expected. The light breading wasn't crispy at all, and the peppers dominated the dish's taste, not the honey soy sauce, giving it a different flavor than the name led me to anticipate. It was almost like a sweet and sour dish in terms of taste. Nevertheless, the juicy chicken chunks made the dish an overall winner.

Irene, meanwhile, was highly impressed with her sweet and sour. The thing that made it stand out was the tofu. We were both confused by the appearance of the tofu--in long, tan-colored strips, it didn't look like the tofu we are used to. We asked an employee what was going on, and she explained that they bake the tofu cakes and then slice them. Well, this technique works--it gave the tofu a meaty taste and a strong consistency. Irene observed that the vegetables, including red ginger, onion, bell pepper, pineapple, carrots, broccoli, water chestnuts and pea pods, were all fresh, and she was happily full after only eating half of the food.

We both had leftovers--I had my lettuce wraps, and Irene had the sweet and sour--so I went to the counter and got boxes. As we packed up our food, I got a surprise: I lifted up the remaining lettuce leaves, and learned that underneath the leaves was where they put the cup of spicy soy sauce that accompanies the wraps. I didn't think anything of the sauce until the cup came falling out of the leaves, falling on the plate and spattering all over my shirt. For the rest of the day, it looked like I was lactating chocolate milk. Ick.

Consider yourself warned about the hiding soy sauce lurking underneath the lettuce. Otherwise, Pei Wei makes for a great addition to the Tucson Asian restaurant scene--even if it is a chain.