Monday, April 1, 2013

Is. P.F. Chang Really A Chinese Restaurant?

One topic which commonly starts a food fight on internet message boards is whether P.F. Chang can really be classified as a Chinese restaurant.  You see it on Chowhound where somebody makes a comment about P.F. Chang which is followed by indignant responses that P.F. Chang does not serve Chinese food.  Likewise you also see comments on Yelp to the same effect.  Now P.F. Chang certainly doesn't serve authentic Chinese food, but neither do Americanized Chinese restaurants.  Can we say that P.F. Chang is so far afield that even if classifying Americanized Chinese food as still being Chinese, it still doesn't qualify?

Based on my personal experience I would agree that P.F. Chang fails the minimum requirement for being classified as a Chinese restaurant.  I remember walking into a P.F. Chang in San Diego, ordering the lemon chicken, and thinking that while the dish it was good, it certainly wasn't Chinese.  In the case of the lemon chicken, it wasn't breaded like the "authentic" Americanized version of that dish, the sauce wasn't sugary sweet, nor was it gloppy as the dish is typically made.  It was as if they took the name of a real Chinese dish and did their own take on it.  There's nothing wrong with that, except that continuing to call it Chinese is definitely a misnomer.

Confirming that P.F. Chang really doesn't serve Chinese food is one of my friends who hates Chinese food.  A couple of times a year I hold a gathering for a sizable group of people who worked together in the 1980s.  Typically I hold the event at a Chinese buffet because people straggle in and out at different times and this lets people choose the food items they prefer.  But this friend never shows up at these events even though she knows most of the attendees, because that's how much she dislikes Chinese food.  Oh, but there is one "Chinese restaurant" she will eat at--P.F. Chang.

There are any number of other factors which further reinforce the feeling that you're not eating Chinese food.  First of all, there is no P.F. Chang.  Rather the chain was started by Paul Fleming (the P.F.), who did bring in a Chinese consultant, Philip Chiang, that they could name the restaurant after.  Likewise, unless it's by happenstance, the person in the kitchen cooking your food isn't Asian.  While it is debatable whether one has to be Asian to be able to cook Asian style food, it does add credibility knowing somebody Chinese is in the kitchen. 

Then, look at the menu.  First of all, an extensive wine list is something almost never seen at a real Chinese restaurant.  Some Chinese restaurants do have a well stocked bar with hard liquor, and many offer beer, but few serve wine, particularly since wine really doesn't pair with Chinese food.  (Hmm.  Tofu with white wine, sea cucumbers with red?)  Then there's the dessert section full of chocolate goodies, cheesecake, and other Western desserts, never ever seen at a Chinese restaurant.  Not to mention that the main menu is peppered with Southeast Asian and other Pan Asian, non-Chinese items.  And when have you ever seen tuna served at a Chinese restaurant?

So while different people may have different definitions of what exactly constitutes a Chinese restaurant, I have to agree with those who conclude P.F. Chang really isn't Chinese.


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