Tag Archives: mall eating

PF Chang’s: Lettuce Wrapper’s Delight

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.

What time is it? Oh yeah, casual o’clock.

Food:

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.

Stuff of legends and (appetizers).

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. 

Food rating:

Beverages:

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!

Tea-ny cup. Get it???

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.

Beverages rating: 

Service:

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. 

Service rating: 

Casualosity:

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?

Behold the plaster grandeur.

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.

Bringing the casualosity rating back up by checking on the Wild score.

Casualosity rating: 

Ambiance:

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. 

Ambiance rating:

Dessert:

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.

Minis part 1

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. 

More minis. The spoons, while thematically appropriate, weren’t the best tool for the tiny job.

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.

Dessert rating: 

Favorite part:

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.

Overall rating: 

Going Up On A Ruby Tuesday

This post is going to be brief for two reasons: 1) This casual encounter was right before the holidays kicked into high gear so people were less motivated to report their comments and 2) Our entire dining experience was relatively unremarkable. There were some high points, a few low points, but overall things hewed pretty close to normal. Hey, they can’t all be a wild and crazy ride, right?

For this Casual Encounter with #14 on our list, we ventured to one of the remaining Ruby Tuesday locations in Minnesota, in Roseville (arguably the best suburb, though some debate that accolade (Jenna)).

Food:

Ruby Tuesday’s signature feature is their Garden Bar, a small but relatively well-curated salad bar that is available as an add-on with most entrees. Jenna bemoaned the lack of chickpeas, for some reason. She may be in the pocket of some kind of legume cartel, for all we know. But what we know for sure is that the journalistic integrity of Casual Encounters will never be compromised by any individual member’s relationship to Big Garbanzo.

Aaron says: Despite the several chicken sandwich options, I went with a similarly boring and probably disappointing pasta dish.  The California primavera, with grilled vegetables and a basil/olive oil sauce.  Shockingly, nothing to write home about, but I did leave full and reasonably satisfied.

John says: I went back to the old staple: Chicken. Specifically the Smoky Mountain Chicken. The chicken was cooked perfectly and the sauce that accompanied it was great. Had a bit of cheese in it too. Which is always nice.

Rachel says: Two words: Garden Bar. Because of this, I am a ride-or-die fan of Ruby Tuesday. There were some mild shortcomings in my experience this time around (some of the fixings were running low when I was there; the cucumbers were inexplicably diced instead of sliced into coins), but overall it’s a highlight to get both an entree (chicken) and a few trips to the salad bar. I barely touched my entree and instead made several trips to the G-Bar, leaving my entree to take home for lunch the next day. That’s called value. 

Rachel’s chicken. Not pictured: Several plates of salad, smug satisfaction.

Food rating: 

Beverages:

We were seated at a table near the bar, which means we were left in the capable 19-year-old(?) hands of a man-bun named Sevyron (pronunciation: man-bun). Sevyron knew how to pour giant beers. Sevyron did not know what a hot toddy was.

John says:  Ordered a hot toddy. They server (also the bartender) didn’t know how to make it. We all found this to be odd since he’s, ya know, a bartender. And a hot toddy is just about the easiest drink to make. We told him how to make it and he did. It was fine.

Aaron says: Sort of like “Supersize Me,” I had (didn’t really have to) to order the mega beer after the server asked if I wanted the regular or large sized beer.  Maybe I should make a documentary about our casual encounters (of the food kind) and always get the biggest beer [Ed. note: Sure, why not, you sad lush.]? Regardless, the 32oz pilsner sufficiently numbed any inhibitions I had about Ruby Tuesday.  I was disappointed I couldn’t peer pressure Jenna into also getting a mega-beer. 

Rachel says: My Diet Coke was served in a mug. Maybe they didn’t want me feeling left out from all the large beers. That’s nice.

Beverages rating:

Service:

John says: Started out a bit rough but Sevyron (yes that was his name) eventually upped his game. He was attentive but not overly so. Only slip up was the hot toddy issue.

Aaron says: Todd the server, who’s real name was something with an S, was good, not great.  Minus points for not knowing what a hot toddy was, but bonus points for figuring it out and making one! [Ed. note: Great attitude, Aaron. This is like reading a high five.]

Rachel says: I agree with John. Sevyrude started out weak but grew on me. He asked if my entree was ok (since I’d barely touched it), but when I explained to him my strategy of filling up on the Garden Bar and taking it home, he seemed confused but not annoyed. Many other servers would be annoyed, but not Stuyvusant.

Service rating:

Casualosity: 
John says: Totally casual. The Roseville Ruby Tuesday is tucked into the mall. You could shop to your heart’s delight and then eat. If you want. Or whatever, it’s your shopping trip. Stop hassling me.

Aaron says: Pretty high on the casualosity scale.  I didn’t break out the flip flops on account of the December-in-Minnesota tundra that had settled in for the holidays.  I wonder if there wasn’t the influx of tired shoppers if it would have given off a classier vibe?  My sources point to no. 

Rachel says: I don’t think any restaurant with a salad bar can rank below, like, a 3 on the casualosity scale.

Aaron tries his hardest to emote over a plate of average pasta.

Casualosity rating:

Ambiance:Some mall restaurants transport the diner away from the hustle and bustle of the shopping experience (see: Our #1 ranking, The Cheesecake Factory). Some don’t. This falls into the latter category.

John says: Fairly bland. Not much in the way of cool stuff on the wall. However, it’s clear that Ruby Tuesday is probably on its way out of business. They’ve already closed a bunch of locations nationwide. The mats on the table clearly hadn’t been cleaned in a while. There was chipped drywall and paint. So, not that awesome. 1.5 cheesecakes.

Aaron says: If you like run-down, family restaurants at the mall, with peeling, grungy wall paper, this place is for you.  Just don’t look under the table cloth.  There’s no way they clean or sanitize under there.

Rachel says: I didn’t really notice the ambiance one way or another. That’s on me. But that doesn’t reflect well on it, does it? 

Ambiance rating:

Dessert/cheesecake:

John says: we ordered 2 desserts to share between 5 people. Which is good because I was feeling bloated AF. The cheesecake was good but not up to the standards of the OCB cheesecake. We tried their featured dessert, a blueberry lemon cake, which was exceptional. I am usually not a huge lemon person, unless it’s a lemon party (I dare the editor to link lemon party [Ed. note: No way, our coworkers read this.]). 

Aaron says: Lemon confectioneries are my favorite (see discussion on lemon pledge flavored frozen custard).  I made sure to order the Blueberry Lemon Cake, and Rachel let me because when I actually get excited about something, it must be a big deal.  If warm lemon cake with ice cream on top covered in blueberries is wrong, I don’t want to be right.

Rachel says: Aaron rarely displays emotion beyond a shrug, so when he voiced his strong preference for this lemon bundt cake, I knew we had to make his dream come true. Luckily for the rest of us, it was a warm and delicious treat. I would have never ordered it myself, but the beauty of our group is trying new things. The cheesecake was fine, but didn’t stand out.

Baked by angels, eaten by humans.

Dessert rating:

Favorite part:
John says: teaching a bartender to make a hot toddy.

Aaron says: Holiday cheer with friends! And the lemon cake, obvi.

Rachel says: Multiple trips to the salad bar. And the exchange during which John ordered a hot toddy and confusion ensued. Our group learned a lesson about assumptions (i.e. assuming a bartender knew how to make a drink), and Sevyron learned how to make a hot toddy. Everyone won.

Least favorite part:
John says: Not singing the Rolling Stones song together.

Aaron says: Gross table cloths, grandma’s old wall paper reincarnated at a mall restaurant.

Rachel says: Parking in the wrong part of the mall and having to sprint through the JC Penney to get to the restaurant. I was still late.

Overall rating:

Our next outing: We’re heading to (gulp) the Mall of America to eat at (double gulp) Hooter’s. Yep.