We love to patronize the locally-owned, individual restaurants around The Woodlands. But sometimes we find ourselves having one reason or another to stop in a franchise, one among a chain of restaurants that criss-cross the country. Tonight the moon was supposed to be the closest to the earth it would be all year, and we knew we wanted pictures of it from Town Center, in order to provide recognizable landscapes for a few Supermoon photos. And so we set out to dine at P.F. Chang's China Bistro at the mall - a recognizable restaurant that we hadn't been to in some time.
Ever have one of those meals where no matter how optimistic you are all will go well, it just doesn't seem to happen? We soon discovered that was the type of night we were going to have once we arrived at the Asian restaurant near The Woodlands Mall.
It all started with the hostesses (plural, there were two of them) - the first one greeting us while the second answered our inquiry as to how long was the wait time for a "first available" table with a cheerful "about 30 minutes." It was barely 7:00 PM and still daylight, so we felt a half hour wait was no problem at all as we picked up a handy buzzer/coaster/pager from the hostess. With such close proximity to four other large restaurants we planned to enjoy some people-watching as we waited in the outdoor mezzanine. Clearly one or more of the local high schools was having a formal of some sort this evening, and we couldn't help but notice "formal wear" just isn't what it used to be. Now we aren't that old, but we did both graduate high school prior to 2000 - and styles have changed a lot from what we and our peers thought to be stylish. After having waited, watched and chatted with other nearby watchers for what seemed like 45 minutes, we returned to the hostess stand to inquire as to our remaining wait time, and were tersely informed by the hostess who had initially greeted us that we'd "only been waiting 37 minutes" and we'd "been told 45 minutes to an hour" so we were "doing fine." I attempted to not sound irritated when I corrected her about that time quote, but her response was, "okay, 30 to 45 minutes then," followed by "I just had, like, 10 tables leave, so I'm sure it will only be about 10 more minutes, still well within that time frame." Well, not really... but I let it go. Maybe she was just stressed that she had to work and couldn't go to prom; not a good excuse, we're just saying.
We were finally summoned a few minutes later (right around the 45 minute mark) by the familiar buzzing, whirling red LED's and were seated on the patio's perimeter, a great location for us to continue the people watching, see the moon as it rose and enjoy our dinner. P.F. Chang's offers a Prix Fixe menu which allows for two bowls of soup (egg drop and hot & sour are the available options), one appetizer of several to share, two entrees of several, and two mini-desserts - all for $39.95. This is a pretty reasonable setup; the range of appetizers, entrees and desserts from which to choose is well-rounded enough that a couple could return several times and still have a relatively different meal on each occasion. We were greeted promptly by our server, David, and let him know we'd be ordering from the Prix Fixe menu.
We both went with Egg Drop Soup which arrived promptly and was served hot. The overall appearance of the soup would show that it had plenty of noodles and other items all in a medium red/brown liquid base. And while admittedly neither of us are huge fans of the popular Asian mixture, we felt it did have an earthy, egg flavor - though it was rather salty. So salty in fact that we both stopped after just a few spoonfuls.
You may recall that P. F. Chang's used to offer Shanghai Street Dumplings on the appetizer menu - they were pillowy, moist little buns filled with a savory mix of ginger and soy-laced ground chicken studded with green onions. I loved those little Asian dumplings and cannot possibly fathom a reason why they would have been removed from the menu. During my most recent visit, I was saddened to learn they'd been replaced with some run of the mill, wonton wrapped dumplings that can be steamed or pan-fried. This time around I let him choose our appetizer, and he went for the Spring Rolls. It was his turn to be surprised when they arrived, however, because P.F. Chang's fries all of their Spring Rolls, and doesn't offer them steamed. Hence the second blow to our evening (or third for those of us counting the dumplings) as these Spring Rolls were not only fried, but quite literally oozing copious amounts of oil. Unfortunately, we didn't get a chance to point this out until just before our entrees arrived a few minutes later.
I decided on Chang's Spicy Chicken which as memory served was better here at P.F. Chang's than it usually is at it's little brother Pei Wei. Described on the menu as "tender, diced chicken breast lightly dusted and stir-fried with a tangy sauce of sweet and spice". Perhaps my palate is becoming more discerning; the longer I do these restaurant reviews and the more I take the time to actually analyze what I'm eating. My dish was far from what I would call 'spicy' and instead I considered it to be only mildly seasoned. The chicken chunks, though hot on arrival and cooked until done, were also not crispy in the least. Just a guess, but I think between the greasy spring rolls and the soggy Chang's Spicy Chicken, the kitchen must feel pressured on a busy Saturday night to get meals out as quickly as possible, sacrificing quality for quantity in order to produce a quick turnaround. None of the other waiting patrons seemed to be rushed in the least so why would the kitchen be rushing any food out to the diners?
We let David know we were less than excited about our Spring Rolls and asked his opinion on both the greasiness, as well as the extreme level of saltiness in the egg drop soup. To his credit, and after asking for permission, he gently squeezed a spring roll right there at the table and agreed they were unacceptably greasy. He also promised to go to the kitchen and personally taste the egg drop soup. He asked if we would like a replacement appetizer, and, knowing both P.F. Chang's as well as Pei Wei were known for their Crab Wontons to be, well - crabby - we said we'd give them a try. I was cynical at this point they'd come out right. After all, they're fried as well. But David insisted on getting a replacement and promised the wontons were delicious and would not be greasy. As it turned out, he was correct.
While David was away, the manager, Kyle, came by to check in with us, as he'd been made aware of the problems we had experienced with our meal. Kyle was very professional and polite, almost to the point of seeming to be personally apologetic for our disappointments thus far; now that is taking ownership. We truly appreciated the time he took to ensure our satisfaction with the remainder of our meal and would later learn that he had instructed David to give us not one, but two full-size desserts on the house as opposed to the mini-desserts that are included in our meal. Even the runner that came a moment later with our Crab Wontons seemed genuinely invested in whether or not they had arrived at the table as expected and were not greasy. The point is, while we initially started our meal with several disappointments - the staff, from the runners to the management - seem to actually give a damn as to whether or not we were happy before we completed our meal. Bonus points for customer care at P.F. Chang's.
She's not exaggerating - we really weren't having an easy go of things. And considering that all of that back and forth to and from the kitchen took quite a bit more time than I wanted while eating this evening, I tried to enjoy my meal anyway, despite my growing impatience. It was mostly the rapidly rising moon that had me anxious, but of course I'd wished our meal as a whole would have been more fluid and satisfying. The time from ordering to arrival at our table would have been fine had the appetizers not required to be delivered twice. David returned after having sampled the egg drop soup in the kitchen and agreed that it was too salty but by that time we had already received our wontons. As promised, the wontons were very much not greasy and had ample crab meat resulting in a tasty little treat - but only moments before our main entrees arrived.
I've been trying to eat healthier (no, really, I have... never mind that creamy King Ranch Lasagna) so I was looking for something with a lot of vegetables in it without going full-veggie. My entree for the evening was Sesame Chicken, which is made with steamed chicken breast, broccoli, red bell peppers and onions in a spicy, dark brown, sesame sauce. The broccoli was nearly perfect and the bell peppers were crisp and tasty. The chicken was tender with a good flavor, though not really very memorable with the sesame sauce filling in the low spots with a very rich, and not-so-spicy flavor; almost to the point of disguising the taste of everything else in the dish. Would I order this again? Probably not at PF Chang's but maybe somewhere else for comparison. And yes, I will dine at PF Chang's again at some point in the future. Eventually.
The Wrap Up
You know how a lot of restaurants will tell you a dessert is large enough to be shared among two or more? P.F. Chang's desserts - the Great Wall of Chocolate and the Banana Spring Rolls - are both easily shared among three or more. To that end, though we genuinely appreciated Kyle's generosity, we obviously would have been fine with just one dessert. Had she not decided to be a chocoholic that night and I was trying to be all healthy and stick with fruit, that is. Be that as it may, we immediately packed up two-thirds of each of the desserts to take home. The Great Wall of Chocolate was easy enough to divide for transport; the six layers of rich chocolate cake with chocolate frosting and edged with chocolate chips made for simple cutting apart and boxing up. The fresh berries and raspberry sauce didn't get divided, though. We ate those on the spot. As for the Banana Spring Rolls, those really should be enjoyed when they're served, and we're sad to report we didn't finish them off the next day at home. The six warm, crispy bites of banana served with coconut-pineapple ice cream and drizzled with caramel and vanilla sauces are every bit as tasty as they sound. David told us the coconut-pineapple ice cream is made exclusively for P.F. Chang's.
So would we recommend P.F. Chang's? Well, yes and no. On the plus side, the staff seem to take pride and responsibility in their customer service for the most part. David, our server for the evening, was initially stand-offish, though he quickly warmed up and continued to do so as as our meal progressed. Despite the rocky beginning to our meal, we never really felt David or Kyle dropped the ball and both of them provided outstanding service throughout the evening. But we also think things might go a little more smoothly if one arrives for a meal earlier in the evening on a mid-week night - which would allow for their customer service and management skills to feel more like the way things ought to be instead of the rescue efforts they ended up being. Think of it as the difference between preventative care versus arriving at the local trauma center. Chances are the care received in the former set of circumstances will be more appreciated than that in the latter - even if it does save your life. In short, 9.5 stars for customer service and 6.75 stars for the food. We know that they can do better so we'll be back to try again.