PF Chang's China Bistro
326 Wilshire Blvd (@ 3rd Street)
Santa Monica, CA 90401
In a city that is defined not by Michelin stars on haute cuisine but by letter grades on authentic ethnic dives, in a city whose population is more colorful than a crayola Big Box, in a city that has not one, not two, but three, yes three (!) Chinatowns in faintly differing flavors all over its metropolitan area, maybe more, it is a wonder to me how PF Chang’s mustered the courage to open a restaurant.
No, sorry. Scratch that.
It is not merely "wonder," as if I were just sitting here at my laptop gazing into my neighbors living room, just letting pretty little thoughts float through my empty head. It is mouth-agape, forehead-desperately-in-need-of-Botox-wrinkled, trigger-finger-pointed-at-temple, utter bewilderment that PF Chang’s not only exists in LA, but exists in multiple locations around the greater metropolitan area served by multiple airports, but is so crowded on a normally off-night for dining out that we get pagers, slipped into our jeans pocket to hide the shame so that when the fateful moment arrives 22 minutes after the quoted 45-minute wait, we dash back to the hostess waving the blinking pager like a 16 year-old at her first underground rave.
So maybe I exaggerate the size of my glass of Hunan Frost Haterade, but let’s be realistic here. The food at PF Chang’s is clearly intended for the Paul Flemings of the world rather than the Changs. It is food that is made “Chinese” with sodium-saturated, sugar-laden food drowning in clear, gelatinous, cornstarch-thickened sauces that would have Dr. Atkins turning over in his grave. There’s nothing wrong with that generic brand of “Chinese” food, as Panda Express serves the same thing, and it would not be totally out of character for me to pick up a small takeout box of their stirfried vegetable oil with eggplant from their kiosk when I’m at Pavilions, but that’s Panda Express. It’s supposed to be scary. PF Chang’s food is the same scary thing, but it costs a lot more because they serve it on china and you have to leave a tip. PF Chang’s is Panda Express in an H&M minidress, Louboutin peep-toe knock-offs, and a drugstore version of the Juicy Tube. A little more dressed up, but still a cheap whore.
The food is not miserable, for it most certainly is edible – that is, edible if you haven’t consumed anything but tap water in the last eleven days and you don’t mind the after-effects of sodium overdose that are inevitable even after eating something as innocuous as pert little three-pointed vegetable dumplings that almost look as authentic as Westside dimsum in a stainless steel steamer, except that they were garnished with Christmas ornaments.
Every fluid-producing gland in your body will be sucked so dry that your contact lenses will permanently adhere to the insides of your eyelids as if you slept in the them for three night in a row. You want to think that the broth of a very bland wonton soup is hydrating, but it will only cause your face to balloon to volumes that will make Giada look *whoa* proportionate (?!). Your lower GI tract will re-absorb every last molecule of aych-two-oh distending your gut to a third world belly. That silky soft tofu in what appears to be mapo tofu but is actually some strange concoction of the mad scientist back in the “kitchen” will constipate you harder than sandpaper-wrapped bricks through a drinking straw, and yet, alternating with fire-rrhea from prescription dosages of hot sauce you were forced to use to numb the pain of blandness. Fluid retention in your muscles and joints will transform your once slender, lithe blogging fingers into tiny tugid balloons that are so stiff that you can’t type anything but asdf all at once until four days later.
Why? Why must you hide your Panda Express behind a very heavy veil of NaCl?? Why, PF, why?!?!
If you think the sodium bloat is bad, let’s not even talk about the accompanying cheap hangover from choking down every bite of with two gulps of some appropriately Asian themed mango-rin lychee martini.
Really, though, I have to hand it to PF for accomplishing what I have to assume was the goal – making Chinese food accessible to tourists who visit “big cities” like LA, spend the day at 3rd Street Promenade shopping at Gap and Banana Republic, and then eschew Houston’s for a more “ethnic LA” experience…at PF Chang’s.
Now before I have some ‘splainin’ to do about why we ended up at PF Chang’s in the first place, and you better damn well be sure that there is a good reason why I’d dare show my face before the stone statue of a Chinese horse, I have a word, or 250 or so, about Zagat, because according to the “little” “red” “book,” PF Chang’s “is in the same league” “as ABC Seafood,” which is “real dimsum” in “C-town” (for those "in the know"), and Akbar, “Indian,” but “don’t worry” because it’s “still 4 points higher” than Islands. (Zagat friend, you know who you are, please don’t be mad. You will see, I ain’t mad atcha.)
Zagat is a curious thing.
I used to live and dine by Zagat. It was my Bible. It was my Koran. It was my Torah. Zagat was the dictionary, thesaurus, and Funk & Wagnalls all rolled into one handy, concise little 4” by 9” burgundy covered book of which I had multiple copies – one in my glovebox, one on my nightstand, and one on top of the magazines in my bathroom. Zagat was my everything.
But then one day, I asked myself…”Sarah, you hot little thing, how much do you trust restaurant guides?”
And my hot little self replied, “Not much.”
You see, I love the idea of a restaurant guide – a handy little book to which I can refer when I need inspiration for a reservation, simple descriptions of cuisine, menu, and prices when I a place to eat with specific parameters, even a quick address or telephone number. However, I realized that restaurant guides comes in several guises, one of which is the aforementioned objective directory, and one of which includes “reviews” and “ratings.”
Hm. Reviews and ratings. Those are what get me.
Now when the restaurant guide is filled with reviews from one person, or even a small group of people whom have all been identified (not necessarily by name, but by taste preference), it is easy to determine, for myself, whether I trust the reviews. I simply have to find out whether our tastes are similar. For example, if there happened to be a restaurant guide written by the man of my restaurant writing dreams whose first name starts with J, last names rhymes with gold, I would use it, knowing already what his tastes are in general, where we have similarities, and where we differ.
But when the reviews are quotes from a massive unidentified pool, culled together by an equally unidentifiable editorship, and the ratings are simply averages of the average anonymous person, there is no way for me to know. You nor I have the same taste as some manufactured "average person," who loves Cheesecake Factory and…PF Chang’s.
I understand that Zagat is democratic. It is the voice of the people. It represents what the majority want, need, like. But we all know what happens when we let a very large majority make decisions. They vote the way a Hollywood actor tells them to vote, and the final outcome represents the lowest common denominator. That's scary.
I am not saying that Zagat is a bad thing, because in all honesty, I have nothing but respect for what they are trying to accomlish. They provide a fabulous compendium of basic restaurant stats, and give a baseline review that correponds to the collective average. If you keep that in mind - each review is a manipulated collective average - then Zagat will stay in your glovebox so you can gab it when you realize you left the printout of the googlemaps to Hatfield’s on your desk.
However, it still pains me to think that Jerry and Belinda on their vacation from Dayton, OH to LA will turn to Zagat to decide where to have dinner on the second night of their stay and end up at PF Chang’s because it got a high rating, and wouldn’t you know it? The PF Chang’s in their neighborhood is the best restaurant in town (!), so they’re going to skip rollerblading the next day because they feel sluggish, heavy, and bloated after eating Chicken Lettuce Wraps at PF Chang’s. That is still what bothers me about Zagat.
So the question still remains. Why and how did we end up at PF Chang’s?
Panda Express was closed.
** a year ago today, i was almost, almost famous **