1 Walden Galleria, Cheektowaga, NY 14225
Web: P.F. Chang's China Bistro
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Cheektowaga Chinese Fusion
"It's no exaggeration to say that this particular restaurant is one of the best-decorated in WNY, an almost embarrassing admission, but a credit to the chain's A-level interior design."
Having previously dined at P.F. Chang's China Bistro restaurants outside of Western New York, we've anxiously awaited this week's opening of the Walden Galleria location for months. One of us has liked both the food and the ambience at the 16-year-old Chinese chain, while the other - also familiar with its sister business Pei Wei Asian Diner - has been somewhat less impressed, viewing both places as offering attractively decorated but watered-down Asian dining experiences. We decided far in advance of this visit to put our prior feelings aside, and view the Galleria's new P.F. Chang's as what it is: a new and arguably worthwhile addition to Buffalo's restaurant scene, with the potential to seriously upstage its local competitors on class. As we prefer not to issue ratings or final conclusions too early in a restaurant's local run, what follows is an opinionated preview of sorts; we'll update it to a final review when the time is right.
If you're not already familiar with P.F. Chang's, the concept is simple: the menu focuses on Americanized Chinese food and fusion cuisine, seating upwards of 200 people in an upscale casual dining room that combines comfort and sophistication. Already doing its best to create waiting lines, the Galleria location impresses literally immediately, its entrances flanked by stone statues while gorgeous black and gray tile runs up the walls and pillars. Nice brown wood is used for the tables and chairs, with gray-accented carpeting and booth padding to continue the dark earthtoned theme. Most impressive in the decor is a grid of truly impressive wooden planks found right under the ceiling, assisting in the suspension of oversized beige decorative lanterns, while similarly dangling metal liquor racks class up the bar. It's no exaggeration to say that this particular restaurant is one of the best-decorated in Western New York, an almost embarrassing admission, but a credit to the chain's willingness to bring its A-level interior design to the area.
The food is another story. It would be unfair to say that P.F. Chang's makes little attempt to bring modern or even authentic traditional Chinese cuisine to its patrons, but it's also impossible to miss the similarities between this menu and those of common Americanized Chinese takeout restaurants. Familiar dishes such as Moo Goo Gai Pan, Pepper Steak, Shrimp With Lobster Sauce, and Sweet & Sour Pork weigh heavily in the equation, alongside recipes that the chain refers to as "our version of" familiar classics. A handful of dishes from elsewhere in Asia can also be found, including the Thai-like Coconut Curry Vegetables, Singapore Street Noodles, and "Asian Grilled Salmon," the latter apparently reflecting more than just one of the region's numerous cuisines. We'll make this point again if it wasn't already clear: if you're searching for authentic Chinese food, you'll want to look elsewhere. Like here.
On this particular visit, we opted for the Prix-Fixe Menu, a $40 meal for two consisting of two bowls of soup, one appetizer, two entrees, and two miniature desserts. We supplemented this order with an extra appetizer - the Dynamite Shrimp ($9), a martini glass filled with battered prawns that were covered in a creamy red chili sauce. Mildly interesting to look at, the Shrimp didn't benefit much from the mayonnaise-like glaze, a milquetoast flavor that struck us as more Japanese than Chinese, and even then, not so good. It was a disappointing alternative to P.F. Chang's once-popular Firecracker Shrimp, which apparently has been discontinued and was nowhere to be found on this menu.
Curious as to P.F. Chang's sake choices, we also ordered a $6 flight that let us sample three one-ounce servings from its five options: the charming and mild Junmai Ginjo-grade Moonstone Raspberry, the clean and light Junmai Ginjo-grade Wandering Poet, and the barely clouded Junmai Nigori called Snow Maiden. We'd order the Moonstone Raspberry or the Wandering Poet again; first-timers will quickly fall for the raspberry infusion in the former. As with all Nigoris, the rice dust in the Snow Maiden is an acquired taste, made more accessible - not necessarily lovable - in this version due to the microscopic particulate.
The Prix-Fixe list offered only two soup choices - the normally $3 Egg Drop and Hot & Sour, rather than the $7 Wonton or $7.25 Chicken Noodle Soup - so we tried both, and they turned out to be the best part of the meal. Each was obviously freshly made, with the Hot & Sour providing the sort of mild spice, slight tang, and vegetarian (mushroom, bamboo shoot, tofu) ingredients that we expect from good rather than imperial-class bowls, while the Egg Drop was served piping hot with large, delicate pieces of egg floating inside a mostly typical but thick and entirely unspoiled chicken broth. We'd order either again.
From the list of six appetizer choices - fried wontons, calamari, dumplings, fried green beans or two types of lettuce wraps - we went with Chang's Chicken Lettuce Wraps (normally $8), described on the menu as the chain's "signature appetizer, often copied, never equaled." Both of us were pleased by the fresh, perfectly bowl-shaped slices of lettuce, and the filling - diced chicken and water chestnuts atop a bed of rice noodles, all either wok- or deep-fried - was on a large plate, and a little more than enough to fill all five of the wrap shells. We split on whether the lightly salty soy brown sauce flavor was fair or good. Our friendly, attentive server had pre-mixed a cup of soy sauce, chili paste, and mustard to use as an additional topping, leaving separate cups of chili and mustard as alternatives; one of us liked the mixed sauce, the other didn't. We agreed that none of the flavors or ingredients compared to the fresh, grilled chicken in the lettuce wraps served next door at the Cheesecake Factory - P.F. Chang's take was a step above the minced chicken and carrot version found at Chili's, but not great.
Our entrees ranged from fine to bad. Again, we went with a "signature" dish, the Mongolian Beef (normally $15), which we've eaten a half-dozen ways at several dozen restaurants over the years. P.F. Chang's version was unlike them all: exceptionally heavy handed on soy flavor - quite possibly the heaviest, saltiest brown sauce we can recall consuming in recent years - the large, saturated slices of beef drowned out the tastes of garlic and scallions, and had none of the crispy rice noodles typically found as a bed under the meat. One of us started out disliking this entree and then warmed to it, ultimately saying she liked it; the other began and ended with a "fair" impression of the dish. We both agreed that the quality of the beef was good, but that the sauce was overwhelming; the portion size wouldn't have been great at the typical price.
Stronger opinions were reserved for Chang's Spicy Chicken (normally $13), billed as "our version of General Tso's and always a favorite." It wasn't. What arrived bore so little resemblance to General Tso's Chicken that it could only be understood as a very loose interpretation of the original: tiny nuggets of batter-dusted, stir-fried chicken in a sauce that was more notable for what it wasn't - spicy or strong in any way - than what it was, a somewhat sweet, very lightly citrus-flavored glaze that failed to enhance the chewy cubes of poultry underneath. If there really was a General Tso, he'd be spinning in his grave.
The single most impressive presentation of the meal came at the dessert course, where a platter with numerous tempting sweets was brought around, including an in-line wire rack presentation of eight "mini desserts" served in square double-shot glasses with tiny spoons - two of these were included with our Prix-Fixe meal. We opted for the Great Wall of Chocolate, a passable little cup of almost pudding-like consistency with thin slices of cake inside, and the Tres Leche Lemon Dream, which tasted like a lemony, cross-sectioned Key Lime Pie. Normally served for $2 a piece, they were - as our server predicted - finished almost as soon as they arrived, and fine rather than good in overall quality. We'd be inclined to try other options next time instead.
Yes, there will be a next time. While we weren't wowed by this particular meal, we feel obliged to come to some resolution as to whether the Walden Galleria P.F. Chang's will be worthy of occasional visits going forward. Authenticity isn't necessary or expected at this point; we're merely hoping to find entrees that taste worthy of the amazing decor and the prices here. Whether or not we find them, we look forward to updating this review with our experiences and final conclusions.