Chain Reaction

P.F. Chang's Rides the Trendy Asian Wave.

AS A GENERAL rule, I've never made it a habit to review the latest addition to the growing list of chain restaurants to open in Tucson in recent years. I fully recognize (although I must say it perplexes me somewhat) their tremendous popularity with the masses and acknowledge that there may be some small comfort for out-of-town visitors to dine at a place where they know exactly what they'll get for their money. Nevertheless, I object to this homogenization of the local culinary culture, which tends to make dining in Tucson not a whole lot different from dining in any number of other American cities.

Call me crazy, but I find something unappetizingly Big Brother in this pervasive duplication phenomenon. I must confess an unapologetic preference for unaffiliated restaurants that typify creative individuality, local character and specific regional differences.

Having said all that, I admit that when P.F. Chang's China Bistro opened an outlet in our humble adobed town, it set off such a buzz among the epicurean elite that I decided I had to find out for myself what all the fuss was about.

Open since early February in the refined neighborhood of Joesler Village at River Road and Campbell, P.F. Chang's embodies a fairly simple concept: Combine traditional Chinese cuisine, American hospitality, and a hip, upbeat bistro scene. Voilà! Practically overnight, this restaurant became the hottest dining sensation in town, with patrons waiting up to three hours on weekend nights just to garner the privilege of sitting at one of Chang's coveted tables.

This scenario of success has been repeated in every city where P.F. Chang's has set up shop, from the original site in Scottsdale to Los Angeles, Denver, Dallas, Miami and Atlanta.

So, is it really that fantastic?

Yes and no.

Remember that phenomenon I mentioned earlier, the one where you can't tell for sure what city you're in when you dine at certain chain restaurants? In many ways, P.F. Chang's is my worst nightmare. It's LA, complete with valet parking (even though most parking spots are only a couple of hundred yards from the front entrance), everybody and their brother blabbing away in earsplitting octaves on their cell phones, and more designer labels and gold jewelry than you can shake a stick at. Frankly, it's a revolting spectacle of pretentiousness, and all I could think of was, "This is not-- it can't be--Tucson."

Except, of course, that it is the year 2000, and, like it or not, this happening scene will no doubt thrill the Southern California wannabes among us.

The interior of P.F. Chang's is impressive. A panoramic, hand-painted mural of 12th-century China arcs above the bustling bar, two 7-foot Ming Dynasty steeds flank the corners of the dining room and life-sized terracotta Xi'an soldiers (similar to the ones unearthed by the hundreds in China in the 1970s) stand guard in domed window casings. Oriental fabrics, oiled wood accents and New Age domed lighting fixtures lend contemporary accents to the eclectic design.

Arriving promptly at 5 p.m. on a weekday, we had no waiting for a table; but by the time we left at 7, the place was packed and people were lining up outside the doors, with more arriving every minute. No reservations are accepted and no seating is allowed until everyone in your party is present and accounted for. If you need to practice patience in your life, here's a prime opportunity.

Once seated, your server will gladly walk you through the wonder that is P.F. Chang's, freely offering recommendations and detailed descriptions of the fare. Since our server dissuaded us from ordering the standard Chinese dishes ("To be honest, you can get those anywhere," he said), we tried to stick to items that were unique to this award-winning establishment. The results may have been slightly mixed but, overall, the food was tasty. Not worth waiting three hours for, perhaps, but still quite good.

We began with appetizers of crab wontons served in a citrus red chile glaze ($3.95) and pan-fried Peking dumplings ($4.95), both accompanied by a customized sauce of soy, red chile oil and rice vinegar, prepared tableside by our server. At least six golden wontons, liberally stuffed with more flaked crab than cream cheese, and four hearty turnover-shaped dumplings, filled with a savory mixture of finely ground pork and vegetables, were quickly gobbled up with great gusto.

Next, we launched into a series of main dishes served "family style," meaning that the platters were arranged on the table for everyone to help him- or herself as they saw fit. Our ensemble included Chang's spicy chicken ($10.75), Mongolian beef ($10.95), firecracker shrimp ($12.95), stir-fried spicy eggplant ($6.95) and garlic noodles ($5.95).

True to our server's prediction, the Mongolian beef was the most unimpressive of the lot, strips of tender steak saturated in a salty, syrupy garlic-soy sauce and served with scallion spears.

The remainder of the dishes elicited subdued praise from the gathering. The tender cubes of spicy chicken, lightly dusted and fried in a sweet sesame Szechuan sauce, were flavorful, but needed some additional sauce to moisten it a bit. The firecracker shrimp, a mountainous platter of medium-sized crustaceans swimming in a fiery sea of red tomato, green pepper, onion and chile sauce and served on a bed of noodles, was exhilarating, as was the eggplant. The tender (never mushy) strips of purple-skinned vegetable were stir-fried with sliced scallions and tossed in an umber soy and red chile oil sauce.

All of this made a grand accompaniment to the spicy garlic noodles, a bowl of modest egg pasta simply combined with loads of minced garlic and red chile oil.

A special dessert menu sets this Chinese restaurant with a twist apart from the competition. The listing includes fruit tarts, custards and our choice, a monstrous hunk of chocolate fudge cake and raspberry sauce called The Great Wall of Chocolate ($6.95). Four of us easily shared the generous slice, an unabashed ode to the decadent potential of the cocoa bean.

The verdict?

P.F. Chang's China Bistro is pretty good. Not great, mind you, but thoroughly decent. Its real appeal, I think, lies in creating an atmosphere of upscale, self-important chic where people love to be seen.

As Queen Victoria once said, "We are not amused."

P.F. Chang's China Bistro. 1805 E. River Road. 615-8788. Open Sunday through Thursday 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. and Friaday and Saturday 11 a.m. to midnight. Full bar. V, MC, AMEX, DIS, DC. No checks. Menu items $3.95-$12.95.
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