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Restaurant Reviews

Chang's Changes Chinese

Maybe it's the typically drab décor of neighborhood Chinese restaurants that puts you off. Perhaps it's the frustration of not being able to translate the menus on the wall or comprehend the nightly specials as inventively enunciated by your Chinese waiter. Is it possible you are creeped out by murky-water...
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Maybe it's the typically drab décor of neighborhood Chinese restaurants that puts you off. Perhaps it's the frustration of not being able to translate the menus on the wall or comprehend the nightly specials as inventively enunciated by your Chinese waiter. Is it possible you are creeped out by murky-water fish tanks cramped with catches of the day, or subconsciously disturbed by years of hearing whispered jokes about disappearing cats? Whatever the reason, if you like Chinese food but are not especially excited at the prospect of dining in a Chinese restaurant, P.F. Chang's China Bistro is just the place for you. And judging from the crowds bunching into the new Brickell branch of this popular nationwide chain, there are a lot of yous out there. (Note to nosy linguists: I'm from Brooklyn and therefore allowed to use yous.)

Chang's resembles Houston's more than it does an authentic mom-and-pop joint. As with most casual-upscale franchises (there are about 130 Chang's in America), the softly illuminated room is defined by rich, polished woods and anchored by a lengthy, often-crowded bar crowned with television screens silently beaming sports. Asian touches are subtly woven into the decorative scheme, most noticeably via a sizable mural stretching like a mustache above and across a bright smile of an open kitchen — which is so amply stocked with cooks that one fears they might spoil the broth.

There are tradeoffs to be made when choosing Chang's over privately owned Chinese eateries. For instance, the seductive aroma of sesame and smoke that stimulates the senses is subdued here; guests are greeted instead with a contraption that blinks when their table is ready. To the bitter disappointment of some in my party, there are no complimentary pots of tea proffered, nor bowls of fried noodles. Nobody seemed to mind that the waitstaff was not Chinese, though I wish more of the cooks were; there is something to be said for that sizzle and cat — I mean spit — of authentic cooking you find in a big-city Chinatown.

Then again, we don't have a Chinatown, which makes it much easier to muster enthusiasm over Chang's uniformly fresh, clean, and flavorful cuisine — formulaic as it may be. Hot-and-sour soup, darkly stocked with chicken, bean curd, bamboo shoots, and wood ear mushrooms, contained proper pepper and tang. Spicy chicken slivers, crunchy with water chestnuts and fried rice noodles, were crunchier still when curled within caps of crisp iceberg lettuce leaves. Meaty spare ribs came zestily speckled with five-spice powder, but they were fatless and dry. Still, all starters more than sufficed in satisfying our Chinese food yearnings.

The waitstaff was satisfactory as well, though more by dint of personality and perseverance than polish. As is usually the case with these sorts of chain restaurants, there exists a wide discrepancy in the experience level of individual employees. In other words, the odds of receiving exceptional service are about the same as being dealt a winning set of tiles when playing mahjong. Feeling lucky?

Some 45 entrées are divvied into poultry, meat, seafood, and noodle selections; almost a third of these are composed of chicken or shrimp. "Chang's spicy chicken" is the house take on General Chu's, meaning stir-fried in a hot-and-sweet sauce. Also up for grabs is the ubiquitous kung pao chicken, quick-sautéed with peanuts, chili peppers, and scallions, as well as a lemon-sauced poultry selection called "Philip's chicken" — a name one doesn't often encounter on Chinese menus. Concerning a bird of another feather, the leg and breast of Cantonese roast duck were mildly redolent of star anise but could have been juicier, and puffy wheat buns on the side definitely should have been steamier.

Traditional choices include the main meins (chow and lo), moo goo gai pan, beef with broccoli, and a fine chow fun with thin, flat rice noodles; tender strips of beef; onions; peppers; and a gingerly touch of ginger. Mu shu pork was tasty, too, even if the scrawny scraps of pork were difficult to find. Kudos to the waiter for adeptly rolling the savory blend of meat, cabbage, scrambled eggs, and hoisin into tortillalike pancakes through the skillful use of two tablespoons. Not bad for a white guy.

Chang's bangs out praiseworthy vegetarian dishes and, unlike the Chinese place on your corner, offers brown rice as well as white with all meals. We especially enjoyed a bright, crisply cooked medley of vegetables, fried tofu, and peanuts aswirl in a relatively mild coconut-based green curry sauce. Tofu ma po style brought bigger cubes of bean curd bathed in a garlicky red chili bean sauce and ringed by crunchily steamed broccoli florets.

The menu's back page is devoted to a singular regional Chinese cuisine that changes every few months. Half a dozen Szechuan dishes are currently featured, including an appetizer of "flaming red wontons," six steamed, thin-skinned dumplings plumped with minced pork and finished with sesame-soy sauce spotted with scallions and pickled hot chili peppers. Another Szechuan specialty, from the area of Chengdu, brought scrumptious squares of lamb shiny with a wok-caramelized syrup of cumin and mint. Catch this dish while you can, though the regular menu also highlights Szechuan items such as succulent wok-fried scallops piquantly painted with a red chili pepper-and-garlic glaze.

Another thing that annoys some people about Chinese restaurants is the lack of dessert options beyond ice cream, Jell-O, and canned litchis in syrup. Chang's changes that by offering American-size servings of New York-style cheesecake and "The Great Wall of Chocolate," a huge wedge of chocolate-frosted, chocolate-chip-studded chocolate cake pooled in raspberry sauce. "You didn't tell us it was going to be this big," one of my dinner guests joked to the waitress. "Well," she replied with a knowing smile, "I did say it was six layers." She had us there.

Banana spring rolls were more rationally portioned, but with a plentiful bowl of coconut-pineapple ice cream centering the six petite packets of fried phyllo-wrapped bananas, it was still prodigious enough for sharing. Desserts run from $5.95 to $6.95, which is less than other places in town charge for smaller, duller sweets. Chang's prices don't qualify as Chinatown cheap, but appetizers are under $8 and most main courses range from $9 to $15 (none exceeds $19). A California-dominant wine selection is affordably marked as well, with dozens of bottles costing less than $40 (and all wines are available by the glass).

Fortune cookies close the meal — didn't think Chang's could get away without serving these, did you? I'd like to say the little white strip of paper read: "Authenticity is overrated." Or: "Hey, yous, cut the cat jokes or else!" But it just complimented me on being a generous person.

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