Last night I went to PF Chang’s Chinese Bistro for the second time in my life. There much less snickering than the first time I went, two years ago, when it opened in Bakersfield, Calif. First, you have to deal with the whole “lazy American” thing where we call expensive, large restaurants “bistros,” when it’s a French word for tiny, moderately priced restaurants and taverns. Basically a French version of a tapas bar or taco hut.
But, whatever. That’s too much to ask of the US of A. “Bistro” sounds fancy, even if it’s not supposed to. I first went to PF Chang’s not-bistro bistro with my good friend Christine P. We both loved Chinese food. Everyone was making a huge deal about the place, so we wanted to give it a shot.
Now, a disclaimer. I started going to “local” restaurants over chain restaurants when I moved to Texas shortly after graduating from college. I quickly learned that if you wanted to actually eat something interesting it was best to go local over a chain where everything always tastes like a slightly better version of Denny’s.
That said, PF Chang’s made me chuckle because despite some really great architecture and design, including giant fake stone horses and warriors, the food was underwhelming. I’m not saying it was gross, because it wasn’t. It was perfectly fine. It just wasn’t better than some of the best Chinese restaurants in Bakersfield. It was about on par quality-wise with Bakersfield’s finest Chinese buffets, namely Panda Palace. But no where near as good as Great Castle, which was the premiere, fancy pants, sit down Chinese restaurant in town.
It was one of those mom n’ pop enterprises that had grown into a grand and unique dining experience. Where the dumplings were just the right amount of sticky and were made from scratch. Where the orange chicken took on a spicy, gourmet experience with just the right amount of creative flourishes and shaved orange rind.
PF Chang’s wasn’t even as good as Bakersfield’s second best Chinese restaurant, Bill Lee’s Bamboo Chopsticks, which has its own Chinese stone warrior.
It wasn’t even as good as the greatest Chinese restaurant in Midland, TX, Quo’s, where I went so often for the vegetarian dishes and the sesame chicken that the women working the front desk and the owner knew my name and joked with me regularly.
And all the people at the restaurants were extremely friendly, generous Chinese people.
I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with going to PF Chang’s. But up until now I’d only been to Chinese restaurants run by Chinese immigrants or first/second generation Chinese Americans. It’s a little weird experiencing Chinese where everyone from the hostess to the waitresses to the manager is white. I couldn’t see who was burning it up in the kitchen. Maybe they hid some Chinese people back there. But Chinese without Chinese people is like Garfield without Garfield, just bizarre.
Now, it’s not like I expect Romano’s Macaroni Grill and Olive Garden to be teeming with Italians. But I also don’t expect either to make food that actually tastes as good as the real Italian food you can get in some of the most famous Italian restaurants in St. Louis made by authentic Italian Americans. I don’t expect Chuy’s or Chevy’s or Casa Gallardo or even Taco Bell to be filled with Mexicans, but I don’t expect any of it to taste as good as the Tex Mex I ate all the time in Midland, TX or the comida del mar I ate in Bakersfield.
But there’s something to be said about going to a fine local restaurant staffed by people with intimate knowledge of the food and culture. I couldn’t read the Chinese and Korean fashion magazines at Quo’s but I still would flip through them as I waited for my table. It didn’t occur to the owners to put out English-language magazines. They put out what they had, and they were Chinese/South Korean magazines. I loved looking through them. And I loved how the hostess always tried to joke with me even though I knew zero Chinese and she was big on the broken English. It didn’t really matter. I knew I was getting delicious food and good service and she was getting the American Dream. Fair trade.
It’s the same deal with going to a fish fry house, barbecue or soul food restaurant and seeing those brothers in the back burning up some of the best food you’ll ever eat. I got a great meal and I put a smile on the face of the brothers frying that catfish and burning those ribs. I kept their family business going so they kept their part of the dream.
And I’ll be honest. I don’t even trust barbecue unless it’s been made by either black people or white southerners. How the hell do I know what I’m getting if it’s not made by a Tyronne or a Bubba who’ve been pulling pork, slicing brisket and smoking ribs since the late 1800s?
Seeing white people working at a Chinese “Bistro” is like seeing Chinese people working at Roscoe’s House of Chicken and Waffles. I’m not saying Mr. and Mrs. Yang from Sichuan Province can’t fry chicken. I’m just saying they probably can’t fry like black people fry chicken.
But in the spirit of the grand American tradition of taking something good, mass producing it and rendering bland and meaningless, I propose we make a fancy pants “southern-style” food chain that’s just an ever more expensive version of Cracker Barrel, but with a distinctly more Negro feel to it. We could call it Big Mama’s or Sweet Tea’s Dixie Bistro and be real lazy and lump in Louisiana/Creole cooking with the soul food of the Georgia/Alabama/Mississippi region. And it could be staff with former sweater-folders from Abercrombie & Fitch and the Gap. And sure, the chicken and waffles won’t taste “bad.” It might even be kind of good. But it won’t have soul.
And that’s what PF Chang’s was like. Chinese food without soul. Or, more appropriately, without shenling.