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P.F. Chang’s China Bistro

P.F. Chang’s
500 Route 73 South, Marlton, N.J.
Credit cards accepted
Open for lunch and dinner

Several weeks ago, my friend Susan, her son Ben and I were talking about summer’s end. They had just returned from Naples, Fla., where the weather was cooler than here.

"We ate dinner at P.F. Chang’s," said Ben, who delighted in a spicy eggplant dish prepared with chicken. "I thought of you right away."

P.F. Chang’s is a decorative chain of Chinese restaurants with moderate prices. The owners like to open them in the suburbs or in shopping malls. Last December, P.F. Chang’s opened in The Promenade at Sagemore, an upscale shopping center in Marlton, N.J. My sister-in-law Jane, who lives outside Cleveland, ate lunch at the Beachwood, Ohio location. "It was just OK," she said. "I’m curious to see what you and Edward think."

On a somewhat balmy evening, Edward, my mom Berthe and I crossed the Ben Franklin Bridge and headed over to the Promenade. It was almost 6 p.m. and nearly every parking spot was taken.

P.F. Chang’s must be doing something right if the place was packed on a Tuesday night the week before Labor Day. We settled into a highly polished wood table set with linen napkins. Lisa, our server, brought over cruets of vinegar and soy sauce and took our drink order. Jumbo Bombay Sapphire martinis were a bargain at $7.50. We tried to read the menu but the room was too dark, the print too small and light. I went into the bar area where the lighting was better.

Dishes are served family style at P.F. Chang’s, which made me realize this chain is a Chinese version of The Olive Garden. Wait staff are trained to give a spiel and place food on patrons’ plates. We told Lisa we would prefer to serve ourselves.

The room is decorated with colorful murals of Chinese warriors on horseback. Large stone figures enhance the room. Ceiling lights resemble lotus leaves and a tall, pretty votive candle sits on every table.

A tureen of wonton soup ($4.95) arrived lukewarm and lacked flavor. The wonton wrappers were thick and doughy. We each received two wontons, one small shrimp, one small piece of chicken and a few mushrooms. The soup was disappointing, but the appetizers were a delicious hit.

Lettuce wraps with an array of fillings are eaten all over China. In Canton, a lettuce wrap is called a "bau," Cantonese for "wrapping" or "bundle." Chang’s chicken in lettuce wraps ($6.25) created a contrast in taste, texture and temperature. We received a stack of cold, crisp iceberg lettuce leaves and a ramekin of nicely seasoned minced chicken. Mom, Edward and I had fun placing a heaping tablespoon of the chicken in the leaf, rolling it up like a blintze and eating them with our hands. I love the contrast of cold lettuce and warm chicken.

Salt and pepper calamari ($6.95) is a Hong Kong classic. Strips of squid are coated in a batter laced with kosher salt and quickly fried to a light golden brown. The squid arrived hot and were very tender. Dipping sauces such as duck sauce and chili sauce provided a nice flavor. The calamari sat on a bed of crispy, very thin white-rice noodles.

Neither Berthe nor Edward cared for Chang’s spare ribs ($6.25), but I thought they were delicious. The barbecue sauce was laced with honey and cinnamon. "Mom, you love cinnamon," I said to her. "I think they’re too sweet," she said. Edward also felt they were too sweet. Northern-style spare ribs ($6.25) are also on the menu. They are served with a five-spice salt.

For entr�es, we selected Cantonese scallops ($12.25), VIP Cantonese duck ($12.95), Cantonese chow fun ($9.95) and spinach stir-fried with garlic ($4.95). The scallops, which could have been hotter, were on the small side and were not top-quality. Although they were properly cooked, the dish was rather bland. Fresh snow peas were stir-fried with the scallops.

The duck was overcooked. The breast meat was sliced, the leg kept whole. The platter came with steamed buns, which looked like white raw dough shaped into ovals and split. Not to worry. The buns were cooked. I liked stuffing them with the breast meat and topping the duck with plum sauce. Hoisin sauce, sliced cucumbers and scallions came with the platter.

The menu description for Cantonese chow fun states that wide rice noodles are used in the dish. We received wide egg noodles, but no matter. They were good. You get a choice of beef or chicken. We chose the chicken, which had been stir-fried with onions and ginger. The dish was tasty but could have been hotter.

The around-the-table favorite was the spinach. It was perfectly done, arriving piping hot. Baby spinach leaves were simply steamed with garlic and a bit of peanut oil. Big bowls of white and brown rice came with dinner. Lisa cheerfully packed some leftovers to go.

From the wine list, I selected a Bonny Doone Pacific Rim dry Reisling ($24), which would have been delicious with Chinese food, but Lisa advised it was out of stock. A nice crisp Italian Pinot Grigio ($24) was a fine substitute.

P.F. Chang’s serves an American version of Chinese food. Much of the menu is Cantonese, a most delicate style of Chinese cuisine. Perhaps that’s why several dishes lacked flavor. Unless you’re from Canton or were taught by a fine Cantonese teacher or chef, getting the flavors in sync can be tricky. Still, the restaurant fills a much-needed culinary gap. There are a number of spicy and vegetarian items as well. Prices are moderate, portions good-sized. You get the choice of chopsticks or knives and forks.

Two tips of the toque to P.F. Chang’s.

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