American chain-style Chinese food? Visions of Panda Express started popping into my head when I received the tasting invitation to Canada's first P.F. Chang's Restaurant. I was seriously expecting frozen spring rolls, chicken balls and fried rice. When I think chains, I picture the Chinese version of crappy pub food - but I LOVE when my expectations are blown away.
P.F. Chang's opened this week at The Shops at Don Mills in Toronto and the food is surprisingly good, not to mention that the prices are incredibly reasonable. Sure, there is a time and place for the down and dirty Chinese food that I love in Chinatown. Other times, you want to elevate it to the next level - go with your girls, kick back a few drinks and eat some Chinese food at a nice restaurant where the bathrooms aren't scary.
Seared Ahi Tuna ($11.99) is served chilled with a mustard vinaigrette and mixed greens. The tuna had this nice smokey flavour from the quick sear and the fish was very fresh. The majority of the dishes are cooked in a hot wok and are made-to-order. No steaming hot plate here - all the dumplings, wontons and spring rolls are made by hand. P.F. Chang's even offers a dedicated gluten-free menu.
The Crab Wontons ($8.99) were nice and crispy with a beautiful presentation and a spicy plum sauce. Alas, this one was not really my thing as I'm not into the creamy crab thing. However, the signature cocktails at P.F. Chang's are EPIC. My favourite was probably the Pear Mojito which went down very smoothly and so refreshing. The Dragon Yuzu Martini was more sweet and tart with pomegranate liquer.
Chang's Chicken Lettuce Wraps ($9.99) is the best-selling item on the menu. The crisp lettuce acts like a taco and is a nice contrast to the savoury minced chicken and mushrooms - which is not too salty. The crunchy rice sticks and water chestnuts provide a satisfying crunch and a light appetizer to get you going.
Philip Chiang, one of the co-founders was on hand to explain every dish to us
If you must dip, Chang's Special Sauce is mixed table-side and can be used for any of the dishes. The middle is a mix of the three, on the left there is a mustard and the right there is a hot sauce. However, I found the food so flavourful that I rarely reached for a dipping sauce, unless the dish was accompanied by one.
The Shrimp With Candied Walnuts ($19.99) is a Hong Kong-inspired dish that goes back to the colonial influences in Chinese cooking. Interestingly, this dish uses mayo to add creaminess to the crispy heat of the shrimp. The sweet walnuts give the dish an added crunch and the melon cools your mouth. I really enjoyed this unique dish and it was a nice surprise.
My favourite dish of the night was The Mongolian Beef ($18.99, left) with tender flank steak stir-fried in a hot wok and tossed with scallions and garlic with a sweet and savoury sauce. I couldn't dump this over my white rice fast enough. It reminded me of eating dinner with my parents at home, just something simple and delicious. I could eat Dumplings ($7.99) until the cows came home, but luckily I just stuck with two. The pork dumplings are filled with fatty goodness with a nice chewy dumpling crust. They were pretty authentic.
The Lo Mein ($12.99) is available with a combo of meats, but we had the vegetarian version above. I think this was average for me and my least favourite dish as it had the texture of spaghetti noodles with a few veggies on top. It lacked any major flavour for me.
Throughout our tasting, I didn't find anything overly spicy until I got to the Dynamite Shrimp ($10.99) - oh hello! Yes this was spicy and the heat really took over there for a second. The crispy shrimp is tossed in a zesty sauce and I would have to say, it was too spicy for me. On the right was one of my favourites, The Northern Style Spare Ribs ($11.49) which were fall-off-the-bone tender and cooked perfectly. Extra points for the Asian BBQ Sauce that was sweet and sticky. I would easily order this again.
The Large Side of Spicy Green Beans ($6.99) was not too crazy on the spice, just a good kick and perfect over steamed white rice. Chang's Spicy Chicken ($16.99) had a nice light crisp to it before you hit the warm moist meat on the inside. The chicken is lightly dusted with corn starch and then stir-fried in tangy sweet and spicy sauce.
The Great Wall of Chocolate ($9.99) stunned us all. Just the presentation of this chocolate monstrosity had all our cameras on fire. Way too much for one person, it was served up with a knife so we could each cut ourselves a small piece. The cake itself was rich and moist and the best part was the chocolate icing with chocolate nibs pressed into the outside of the cake.
The Banana Spring Rolls ($8.99) with warm banana on the inside and a crispy skin on the outside. Paired with a coconut-pineapple ice cream. I really loved the ice cream and could have eaten just that. I'm not a big banana spring roll person, but these were really good and easy to share too.
P.F. Chang's is now open in at The Shops At Don Mills in Toronto and will be adding more locations throughout Canada. The chain has quite a cult following, especially from Canadians who have eaten at locations throughout the US. I am sure that this will be a destination restaurant for many and a definite success because of the value, taste and price.