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P.F. Chang's: Kinda O.K.

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In Los Angeles, it's easy to run out and sample super fresh and authentic food from all over the world, or even any sub-region of a nation, like the many provinces of China, Sometimes you can stumble into a dim little deli in Chinatown and emerge with rich and tender pastries. Sometimes you can head out to a Monterey Park banquet hall, and end up with plate after plate of delicious dim sum. And sometimes you find yourself at P.F. Chang's in El Segundo.

The thing is, it wasn't bad. This particular outlet of the popular chain is located in an enormous beige office/entertainment complex on Rosecrans Boulevard, but given the generic giant parking garage, the multiplex movie theater, and the other cavernous restaurants, it might as well have been in Michigan, or New Jersey, or anywhere else in America. In fact, we'd tried a P.F. Chang's years ago in another city and left unimpressed with the overly sweet and greasy meal. This time, though, the theme was a trip to Sichuan province. (Perhaps related to the recent availability of the Sichuan peppercorn in the US after several years). We tried to order the traditional ma po dou fu off the special Sichuan menu, but the waiter suggested the vegetarian version instead, and agreed to make it spicier to suit our mood on a drizzly day. In fact, it was not ma po dou fu at all, but simply fried tofu and steamed broccoli in a sauce -- but it was good; the tofu had a pleasing crisp on the outside, silky on the inside texture, and the sauce wasn't too sticky and had fresh touches of the heralded sichuan peppercorn. The "chengdu spiced lamb," though salty, had a nice rich blend of spices. It was probably more like food you'd find in China than the gooey dishes from corner Chinese takout joints are, and it was enough to remind us to try similar flavors elsewhere -- perhaps a trip to Hu's Szechwan or to 99 Ranch Market for ingredients to cook our own.

It wasn't a perfect dining experience. It was loud. The rice was dry, which is really unfortunate in a Chinese restaurant. A dish of Cantonese scallops weren't particularly tender, nor was the lamb. The Tam's noodles are probably better done elsewhere. But the iced tea was unusually good for a restaurant, laced with flavors of jasmine or spice, the waiter offered suggestions, and not everything tasted the same. In other words, the best things about the meal were those you'd least expect from a chain.

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Photo by jonaldinger via flickr