Jul 23, 2010

A Hellish Return to P.F. Chang's

Restaurant: P. F. Chang's China Bistro
Location: 102 W. 47th St., KC, MO
Sweet, gooey, unauthentic Chinese
Service: Inexcusably, ridiculously bad
Atmosphere: Sleazy chain
Price: No matter what you get and what it costs, you'll end up feeling like it was overpriced.
Rating: zero napkins

I have to admit that it was extremely difficult for me to approach this dining experience at P. F. Chang's without bias. I have a short and largely unceremonious history with the place, to put it lightly. (To put it more accurately, I hate P. F. Chang's.)

To be fair, I'll give context to my disdain: I think P. F. Chang's has the most uncomfortable sort of feel emanating from its every visible detail. From the unanimously inept, up-sell-scripted waitstaff, to the sloppy service and food, its vibe absolutely screams "we're a sleazy chain!" Watch what's going on around you and you're sure to pick up on any number of atrocities that ruin the restaurant-going experience. But to be specific, the catalyst of my true ire for P. F. Chang's was a particular night gone terribly, but typically, wrong, in which Elizabeth and I sat for 45 minutes without ever receiving any service whatsoever, despite making eye contact and speaking with servers and hostesses on numerous occasions, resulting in us deciding to get up and leave without ordering.

Now, for those skeptics reading, know that we both are exceedingly lenient restaurant customers. I don't judge restaurants heavily at all on their service, because I think service can vary widely depending on the one or two people in charge of your experience on a given trip. Servers and hosts come and go in the restaurant industry with a rapid turnover rate, so I don't believe one should place too much emphasis on that aspect of their experience at a restaurant. But at Chang's, it's always been bad.

What the heck, then, brought us back at Happy Hour this day? I read a post on Fat City that the KC P. F. Chang's was going to debut a new Happy Hour menu that, if well-received, would be rolled out to the rest of the country. (I found the inherent insult of Chang's market partner Mark Kirke's comment that "The Kansas City palate was a draw. If it goes over well here, it will extend well to the coast, as opposed to vice versa," to be a challenge I had to accept.)

So after a movie on the Plaza and then a stiflingly-hot walk down to restaurant, we seated ourselves at a high top table in the bar area, asked for a couple ice waters and perused the new Yum Cha menu. Immediately, the flaws started piling up.

First, a technicality: "Yum Cha is a dining experience which involves drinking Chinese tea and eating dim sum dishes (wikipedia)." Its literal Cantonese translation is "drink tea." Yet, there's no tea on the supposed Yum Cha happy hour menu. Thus, I'm led to believe Chang's must have made the decision that this selection of handrolls and flatbreads, which should simply be called dim sum,  needed an exotic, less-familiar title in order to sell... cultural accuracy be damned.

The Yum Cha menu is like a do-it-yourself sushi menu with the selections listed on a piece of paper that guests mark with a provided pencil. We quickly put a "1" next to the top three hand rolls listed.  When our server (finally) came to take our order, she noticed we were going with the Yum Cha menu and asked that we please fill out the provided survey before we leave that captures diners' thoughts on the experience. Placing that aside, we watched her pour our ice waters, which she managed to drip all over my phone.

Elizabeth ordered a cold glass of Pinot Grigio - appropriate for the current weather - which was brought back after an acceptable wait, in an unacceptably dirty glass. She held it up in the light between us, and I could hardly see her through its dingy sides. She used her napkin for the next few minutes to wipe it down and we prayed the alcohol would kill any caked on germs, not yet ready to cut our losses and haul our keisters out of there.

The hand rolls (mamenori), though not incredible, were easily the best part of the entire experience. At three for $7.95, we felt they were a tad overpriced. Six dollars would seem perfect, making them $2 per roll. They're fairly small in size, so even eating all three one won't be filled up. And given the other happy hour specials available on the plaza, $7.95 doesn't seem competitive (for instance, I can go right next door to M&S Grill and have fish tacos or a Pizza Margherita for just $3.95).

Each comes in a colorful soy wrapper, a little papery in texture, but they melt in your mouth. The first came with poached shrimp, strips of cucumber, lettuce and a big glob of sriracha-infused mayo. Its spiciness was nice, but the mayo completely drenched the otherwise fresh and delicate ingredients. The second was by far the best - pink chunks of ahi tuna with shallots, chives, light sesame oil, lime juice, smoked black pepper, cucumber strips and butter lettuce. The only thing wrong with this delicious roll was our fear that the restaurant's lack of cleanliness might have tainted the raw fish. Otherwise, we loved the lightness of it, the brightness... it was like a hand-held tuna ceviche salad.

The last of the rolls was the most substantial - nicely done shredded duck confit with lots of rice noodles and tons of crispy bacon bits which were apparently sugar coated and overwhelmingly sweet. Also in this wrap were parsley infused oil, tiny bites of pineapple, sweet soy peanuts, butter lettuce, other herbs and sweet soy drizzle. If this sounds like a lot of stuff, it was. Too much. This wrap needed some serious editing and to be lightened up, overall. With so much bacon and sauce amongst the noodles and overpowered greens, what should have been a nice spring roll-esque wrap turned into a bit of a gut bomb lacking in Asian influence.

Thank goodness the plates we were given only served the role of catching fallen ingredients from the mamenori, because they, too, were dingy with fingerprints and what was, at best, soap scum and at worst, remnants of someone else's meal.

Once the rolls and wine were gone, we were, too. The comments we left on the survey admitted we would have the mamenori again, but listed the above criticisms of the recipes and price. I'd imagine whoever picked it up and read it merely rolled their eyes and then went back to diligently ignoring their other job responsibilities and customers.

I still say folks should avoid this restaurant at all costs, but the new Yum Cha menu and its hand rolls are not the reason. It's everything else you'll experience there that'll disturb you. Don't say I didn't warn you.

Rating: zero napkins

P.F. Chang's China Bistro on Urbanspoon


KC Wort Hog said...

Hey there. Enjoyed reading your post (and I enjoy your blog in general). When I first read about their "yum cha" menu, it seemed ridiculous. Yum cha is supposed to involve servers coming around with steamer baskets and plates of what is prepared in the kitchen, and you oooh and ahhhh over what they present, and pick what you want. It's not expensive, trendy fusion-type finger food. Ugh.

I've never had the service issues you describe, but their food is ridiculously greasy & salty and way overpriced. If I'm going to be in that neighborhood, I'd rather just go to Blanc.

KCNapkins Guy said...

KC Wort Hog - Your last two sentences do a better job of making my point than the entirety of my post. Well put. Thanks for the comment. I totally agree!

Barleywhiner said...

If you had such bad experiences before, why would you go back? There are so many great places to eat that aren't chains, why waste your money? I would have got up and left way before 45 minutes!

KCNapkins Guy said...

Barleywhiner, like I said, I thought the fact that they were test-marketing the Yum Cha only in KC was somewhat newsworthy. Worth the single-digit expenditure, at least. Besides, I have a platform for recommending that others NOT waste their money there, so I'd like to think that in the end, I'm negating whatever I spent and then some by warding off other potential customers.

You're right, though... giving them my precious dollars was difficult. Thanks for the comment!

abruce said...

Can I add my two cents in support of PF Chang's? Vegetables aren't overcooked. And they offer brown rice. I guess that's about it.

jan.preston said...

Don't care of PF Changs or Pei
Wei. Everything is way too sweet and saucy for me. Couldn't agree more with your assessment and understand why you gave it another effort though I doubt you will be pressed for another try.

KCNapkins Guy said...

Thanks for the comment and reinforcement, Jan!

Elizabeth said...

Have to add my two cents, being the companion diner on this occasion. Despite the food being mediocre, what really got me was how dirty the place was. I can overlook the waitress dumping water on us - she was nice at I'll give it to her that she probably meant well - and honestly, sometimes I am kind of a sucker for chain restaurant food. But the place was so gross and filthy, I don't even want to think about what's going on back there in the kitchen. This visit, which will be my last, reinforced my belief that PF Chang's is the McDonald's of asian restaurants. This place deserves a -1 napkins - zero is too many.

robtkennedy said...

I haven't been in the place for 2 or 3 years. When I did go, the service was good, if overwrought. And everything was clean. But I really dislike the food, and I've gone from a neutral opinion to being very much in the "dislike" category. Pei Wei is hardly Asian, but at least (like McDonalds) it is predictable. I've eaten at the KC store and in St. Louis, and basically I am done with this chain. It's interesting that the company (at least originally) paid big bonuses for high performing managers. You'd think that with performance incentives they'd keep that place humming.

KCNapkins Guy said...

Great comment, Kennedy, and interesting tidbit about them paying managers those bonuses. I'd heard the pay was pretty good before, too. But there's a fundamental difference between the type of manager that would even consider working at a place like Chang's and the self-respecting, food-respecting type who wouldn't.

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