The Romano’s Macaroni Grill of Chinese Food

PF Chang’s Chinese Bistro (Left) in Clayton, Mo.’s mixed use neighborhood/high-end shopping area, The Boulevard.

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.

15 thoughts on “The Romano’s Macaroni Grill of Chinese Food

  1. I don’t care much for Chinese food. I never have and I don’t guess I ever ever will. But I love P.F. Chang’s. All the ones I’ve been to (in Texas, Florida and Virginia) have always had people of Asian descebt working there, even if it was just the kitchen staff. And yes, I have peeked into the kitchen and seen them in there tossing rice in the woks. And ironically enough, my cousin likes to judge “ethnic restuarants” by the number of people who are that ethnicity and eat there. P.F. Chang’s always seems to have its fair share of Asian customers. The wait staff was definitely more Caucausian when I went there for my birthday, I have to admit.I don’t like Romano’s Macaroni Grill. But I love Johnny Carino’s, Maggiano’s and Carrabas… Sylvia’s, P.Diddy’s Justin’s and the Shark Bar have all attempted to take the soul food chain on the road. However, it seems none of them got any further than Atlanta and NYC.

  2. I agree Snob, the P.F. Chang’s that I have been to (Atlanta and Kansas City, MO), had white wait staff.I was looking for a soul food restaraunt in Atlanta and went into one to find Korean people owned it. I didn’t think it would be a good idea to try it.

  3. Well Snob,You got what you paid for; generic food in an generic setting. As a former chef with 25 years experience; capitalism and free enterprise has created the chain restaurant. They exist to sell a product wrapped in an “experience.”I often wondered why people expect more from these places. I think that some lack the palate to try authentic dishes, so why not go to a “Chinese” restaurant, and get the closest thing to “chinese food” without crossing the line.I found out in the 25+ years of cooking in and around Baltimore, that most Americans are squeamish when it comes to the dining experience. In my opinion, this is due from a lack of exposure as children. And don’t trip; We, as blacks are especially guilty of this. Most of us can’t fathom the thought of eating medium rare steaks or fish.We pass on our preferences for food onto our children without giving them the opportunity or exposure to try new things. Hell, most of us would think that going to PF Chang’s was indeed a fine dining experience.Years ago, I stopped a friend’s date from making an ass of himself when we were presented with finger bowls at a high-end restaurant.He thought it was soup.I would encourage everyone within eyeshot of this posting to consider trying an authentic experience when eating ethnic food. Have the server tell you what a raita is or pappadam when eating in an Indian restaraunt.Ask how to use injera when eating a communal dish in an Ehiopian cafe.Ask what fork is used for what when dining in an French restaraunt,And try using the chopsticks next time when you are having sushi.Let’s all open our minds, and palates

  4. And stop going to those chain restaurants.People such as myself have spent years in culinary schools and restaurants so we can bring our visions of good food to the public.Give a chef your palate, not a stupid chain restaurant.

  5. deedlelee: And that’s why I try to avoid them, but so many people are petrified of places that don’t look like a cross between McDonald’s and a Target housewares section.(And you’re a chef? I’m impressed! And I’m glad you weighed in on this subject. I knew that my chain restaurant food was “soulless,” but I couldn’t quite describe what was wrong. I kept wanting to write the term “bus terminal” or “airport terminal” to describe the feeling. But you got where I was trying to go.)Before I learned what food could taste like (me, circa 1999), I was amazingly impressed by The Cheesecake Factory. After five years of nothing but local fair (ethnic, regional and Americana), I was hugely underwhelmed upon my return. After waiting two hours to get into the place at LA’s The Grove, I tried to hide my disappointment as I stopped myself from crying out, “My God! I could have saved $10 and eaten at a Chili’s!”And I remember struggling to convince people that to keep the bland uniformity of the alleged “flavor” most chains do a great deal of freezing and unfreezing. I’ve never been able to pin down how much actual “cooking” is going on.But American’s can be childish when it comes to eating out. I’ve had people balk at me over sushi and get skittish over a Vietnamese Restaurant because they didn’t like the idea of Vietnamese people speaking amongst themselves in Vietnamese while working.I’m no foodie, but I like to eat. And I like to eat food that’s a little more intimately prepared than what I would get wrapped in cellophane at a cafeteria in an airport. I don’t want to eat a steak prepared “by committee.” So, I miss Bakersfield where I could rattle off the best local places to eat, no matter what food you like, off the top of my head.I’d like to say I miss Midland too. But I’d be lying. I miss Midland’s restaurants. Those Texans can cook!I’m still getting re-acquainted with St. Louis dining, as I was a kid who thought Applebee’s and Steak n’ Shake were fine dining when I was living here almost eight years ago.

  6. PG County MD is dominated by ghetto chinese carryouts. Its quite refreshing to venture out Rockville or Columbia MD to eat at PF Changs. To me the food is pretty good.Ms martin the next time you are looking for a excellent soul food restaraunt in the Atlanta area. (Black Owned) Check out the Pearls Country Bistro.

  7. I went to P.F. Changs once at the Beverly Center. Never again.Not all chains are bad. I do like Houston’s but when it comes to ethnic food like Italian, Chinese, Indian etc. I will only eat at places where there are folks from that culture either cooking the food or eating it. End of story. Olive Garden is the worst. Yuck.

  8. Snob, I know just how you feel! Having just returned from China I can tell you that PF Chang’s is not it. The best food I ate in China was from a outside stand with ducks hanging by strings. I had Peking Duck and it was fantastic! I have been spoiled rotten ever since.

  9. you know, i was just thinking about this subject this weekend.my girlfriend and i moved to a new neighborhood and tried out the one mexican restaurant that’s there. it was…eh. and that may be due to the fact that there didn’t appear to be anyone mexican or even of latin descent anywhere.so then when we were leaving i thought, “huh, that’s interesting. why do i assume that a particular type of food can only be good if people who look a certain way are cooking it?” i mean, i’m a white midwestern woman and i can’t cook midwestern food for shit. (not that i’d want to — casseroles and pasta salads aren’t my thing.)but i do make that assumption, and it’s interesting to see that other folks do, too.which is not to say that chinese joint run by chinese people is always good — i live in ny, and i’ve had some of the worst chinese food ever in a “real” chinese take-out place.just a few weeks ago, we went to a moroccan place run by moroccans, with a staff that spoke mostly french, and the food was terrible. it might have been the most tasteless hummus i’ve ever put between my lips.anyway, that said, i do agree that if i go to an “ethnic” food place and don’t see anyone of that ethnicity anywhere in the restaurant, i get suspicious.

  10. In your article:….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.They already have, they’re called Bojangles and Poyeye’s 🙂

  11. Snob,I went to that same P.F. Changs last year and I didn’t think much of it. The food was just tasteless and plain. But my aunt who lives in Dallas says the P.F. Changs down there is fantastic.It reminds me of the new Cardinals stadium. Everytime we sit in the Red Bird section they always have brothers behind the counter frying up the chinese food. I never understood that.Have you ever been to Sweetie Pies?

  12. Just wanted to say that at Roscoe’s in Pasadena, Calif., the kitchen staff looks all Latino, from what I can tell. The food whets my appetite, so I don’t realyl care.

  13. I was a working chef in a popular Fell’s Point eatery until my knees gave out due to osteoarthritis. The spirit was willing, but my flesh was weak. That was five years ago. You can’t cook for a living if you can’t stand. Trust me, Snob; I didn’t want to go out like that. I had no choiceNow, I am six credits away from my comm/journalism degree; my blog is on hiatus until I finish this hellatious math class. Soon, I will be re-launching my blog, and continuing with my Food commentary, cooking tips and my almost famous Friday Feast recipes for everyone. So, a girl ain’t out of the game yet!

  14. my ex roommate was a paralegal at the firm who represents the p.f. chang franchise, paul fleming…if i remember correctly, fleming wasn’t the easiest person to please…non the less, they have one hear in boston and i would like to go, but none of my friends really care for chinese food…oh well

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