For those of us used to Chinese food being a strip-mall staple, PF Changs comes as something of a revelation. Cloth napkins, craft cocktails, and menu items with descriptions all stand in contrast to whatever greasy takeout spot you frequented in college or on your lunch break from your sad cubicle job. These guys invented lettuce wraps, for crying out loud! That’s class. Even the back history is a cut above: According to their website, a restauranteur met the original restaurant’s owner and “with a handshake, they agreed to share the magic and P.F. Chang’s was born.” So that’s how restaurant babies are made, kids.
And so, with visions of build-your-own appetizers in our heads, we ventured to Southdale Mall yet again for our second-to-last Casual Encounter.
Besides the aforementioned lettuce wraps, PF Changs features what it calls “farm to wok” cooking. It goes to show you how even mall Asian restaurants are trying to change with the times and offer a more personal, (theoretically) transparent dining experience. We’d like to see Applebee’s try that. You can really make any kind of cuisine sound more personal and transparent by putting “farm to [cooking/serving vessel].” We had a hard time deciding on what to order, so we got a few different things to share.
Rachel says: Unbeknownst to me at the time, I was suffering from pneumonia. So, my appetite was not what it usually was. But I was still excited to be in the birthplace of lettuce wraps, so I did my best to keep up with the crew. I was disappointed to see that the lettuce of said wraps was iceberg. I would have expected Bibb since this place seemed a little nicer. I also had some egg drop soup, which I know is fake Chinese food but I don’t care. It was tasty.
Jenna says: I was really excited about PF Chang’s. I used to go there in college and thought it was sooooo hip (mostly because Fargo didn’t have one) so I was looking forward to catching up with those lettuce wraps. Very, very good. The lettuce wraps were just as delicious as I remembered them (even with the iceberg lettuce, Rachel, sometimes that’s just what you need). The ginger chicken dish was equally good, but the real standout of the evening was the Mongolian beef. The meat was perfectly seared, crispy but not dry, and the green onions were a perfect addition. Of all the casual dining establishments, PFC’s is the one I’d most likely visit again because of the food.
John says: I think we have a winner for best food so far during our casual dining adventures. We started out with lettuce wraps which were awesome. The group then shared an order of vegetarian fried rice, ginger chicken with broccoli, and Mongolian beef. This may be recency bias but the Mongolian beef dish was the best dish I’ve had since we started. It was damn near perfect.
PFC’s features a full bar, complete with signature cocktails with snazzy names. We were too late for happy hour, though.
Rachel says: I really enjoyed my tea. It came in my own personal teapot so I could be in control of my destiny. And it was served with a tiny little teacup so I could A) feel like a giant and B) stay busy during the entire meal pouring thimbles of tea for myself. Hours of fun!
Jenna says: Not surprisingly, I had best drink of all the casual encounters. (insert joke about how I had two drinks on a school night, the nerve!). [Ed. note: Drink as much as you want, kids are the worst.] A well made Moscow Mule, complete with fresh mint and candied ginger. I docked a point though for lack of copper mug, and fancy cocktail bar prices.
John says: I went ahead and ordered a full pour whiskey which was Woodford reserve. It was good but WAY overpriced.
Rachel says: The server was nice, if a little aloof. We also had random cast of characters bringing us our food so I can’t remember much about him.
Jenna says: It was good but unremarkable. Every time our waiter came by I had an Ann/Egg Arrested Development reaction. “Wait, that’s our waiter? Never met him.” [Ed. note: Him? Is he funny or something?”]
John says: We went ahead and made a reservation just in case holiday shopping crowds (we were at the Southdale PF Changs). I was seated immediately [Ed. note: We were one of about six tables in the whole place, so…] and the rest of the group joined shortly thereafter. Our server was patient, friendly, and not overly attentive. Those are the 3 most important qualities in a server to me.
PF Chang’s skews much lower on the casualosity scale than many of the other restaurants on the list. It was, dare we say it, nice? Would a truly casual restaurant feature grandiose horses flanking the entrance, recalling some kind of Qin dynasty burial village? And also cloth napkins?
Rachel says: Not terribly casual. No stuff on the walls, a menu with flowery descriptions, and dark leather booths. Would work well for a celebration dinner or a 17 year old’s first date. [Ed. note: We assume you mean two 17 year olds dating each other, not you pulling a Roy Moore.]
Jenna says: Although PFC scores high in food & drink for me, perhaps the best of our experience thus far, it scores extremely low in casualosity. I’m still unsure how it can be on the same list as OCB and Golden Corral. We really need to have casual dining brackets or tiers to better organize all the establishments. Get on that, John Ward.
John says: This was a big step up from our previous encounter at Golden Corral. I would say this is the second most “formal” casual dining restaurant we went to after Benihana.
Whether it was the mall proximity or wanting to give an overall feeling of grandeur, this restaurant had soaring ceilings and a wide open dining room. A distinct lack of crap on the walls added to the vibe. There was a TV in the bar area though, in case things were feeling too sophisticated.
Rachel says: It felt way too open air for me. Or maybe that was the secret pneumonia telling me I should have been under a blanket instead of out at a restaurant. But anyway, no warmth to speak of in the atmosphere.
John says: Nothing particularly memorable about it. Since we were at a mall, it takes away some of the luster. Also, the lighting was kind of odd. Way too dark, like my soul.
PF Chang’s offered something we’ve seen and adored before in our casual journey: miniature desserts. They offer the best of everything! We all get to try something new, and at least one of them is gross and we all try it and comment on how gross it is. It’s a true bonding experience within a bonding experience.
Jenna says: Could have been a whole lot better, it seems that dessert is not high on the PFC priority list.
Rachel says: Good lord I love mini desserts. They always seem so practical, as if I couldn’t easily eat an entire full dessert by myself. The chocolate one was kind of weird, the strawberry cheesecake one had one strawberry involved in the whole thing, but it was good. An uneven experience, to be sure.
John says: Ah, yes PF Changs shines again. We got 4 mini-desserts to share which were tasty. The cheesecake mini dessert was a hit. Not as good as the OCB cheesecake but pretty close.
Rachel says: The nonstop action of pouring my tea in order to get enough to drink.
Jenna says: The food!
John says: The Mongolian beef. It was so good.
Least favorite part:
Rachel says: Being sick.
Jenna says: Expensive.
John says: This being almost our last casual dining encounter.