P.F. CHANG'S CHINA BISTRO | Dining Reviews | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

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P.F. CHANG'S CHINA BISTRO

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It seems like a restaurant couldn't go wrong offering inexpensive popular food around the corner from a multiplex movie theater -- especially if the place bucked Pittsburgh's early closing hours and kept a kitchen open after 10 p.m. I noticed we weren't the only folks that evening who trooped from Loew's through the "imperial gates" of P.F. Chang's China Bistro. Inside, the oft-maddening signs and bustle of the Waterfront ceases. The interior of Chang's is very soothing -- pleasantly dark with muted ceiling lights, attractive artwork and blinds closed against the shopping center outside.

The staff here are quite eager to enlighten diners who may be less familiar with Asian cuisine. The five condiments -- soy sauce, white vinegar, chili oil, mustard and chili paste -- at our table were described before our server whipped up a custom dipping sauce based on our specifications. Imparting knowledge is a good thing. Pan-Asian may be the rage among certain sets, but information helps to demystify other cuisines and encourages diners to try new dishes. And while Chang's does offer well-known Chinese entrees like sweet-and-sour pork and kung pao chicken, there are less common dishes like mango chicken, coconut-curry vegetables, spicy ground chicken and eggplant, and sea bass marinated in oolong tea.

We began with the restaurant's signature appetizer, Chang's chicken in "soothing lettuce wraps." A plate of hot ground chicken, mixed with onions and spices, is accompanied by a plate of cold lettuce leaves. You spoon the meat into the lettuce, add additional condiments, fold up and eat with your fingers. The hot meat on the crunchy lettuce was tasty. I guess the lettuce soothes the meat, but I enjoyed this appetizer for its silly participatory aspect.

Along with the lettuce wraps, we'd ordered a plate of "northern-style" ribs. Six pork ribs had been braised in a wok and were served with a small dipping bowl of five-spice powder (star anise, cloves, cinnamon, fennel and pepper). They were lean and meaty, and the meat fell away from the bone nicely. The pin rice noodle soup had lots of whole shrimp and pork meatballs, scallions, bean sprouts and plenty of thick rice noodles in a spicy chicken broth. For one person, this could be a meal in itself.

Then suddenly, it was as if one of my dearest wishes came true: Cookies rained down upon me. A server had inadvertently dislodged a large plastic tub of fortune cookies from the service station immediately above our table. Naturally, I could only laugh. Apologies were immediate and profuse: Was I hurt? Under what rare conditions could a fortune cookie inflict any real damage? The manager was soon present, apologizing and comping our appetizers. So, mishaps will occur, and P.F. Chang's did right by this incident after it happened, but this could have been avoided, if -- in the nearly empty restaurant -- they had not seated us beside the service station.

Undaunted, we happily continued eating. For our main dishes, we'd chosen two of the designated hot-and-spicy items. My companion had the "hot fish" which was catfish in a Sichuan sauce. The fish had been batter-dipped and deep-fried as a whole filet, then cut into bit-sized pieces and served atop a large bed of carrots, snow peas, scallions, bok choy and chili peppers. The sauce had a good bite to it, and catfish, with its strong flavor, is a good fish to complement a lot of hot spiciness. I had the orange-peel beef -- slices of beef coated in a garlicky sweet sauce with chilies and strips of orange rind -- which wasn't as hot as I would have liked, but I easily made do from our table condiments. With entrees, there's a choice of rice here -- white or brown. We received a dish of each. The brown rice was a nice alternative -- thicker and chewier than white, and with a distinctive earthy flavor.

Considering dessert, the "Great Wall of Chocolate" was heralded by the kind of bad pun I usually fall for, but I had seen a huge slice of this six-layer chocolate cake go by, and I opted for the lighter-sounding banana spring rolls. Six large bite-sized portions of banana had been rolled in rice-flour wrappers and deep-fried. They ringed a large scoop of pineapple-and-toasted-coconut ice cream, and the plate was crisscrossed with lots of caramel and vanilla sauces, and there were fresh strawberries, raspberries and blueberries. Mmmmm -- warm, crunchy banana in caramel sauce. And if that wasn't sweet enough, I still had a dozen fortune cookies. ***

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