Pei Wei is owned by P.F. Chang's, a restaurant I have never much cared for, the kind of gorgeous, dimly-lit Chinese restaurant that evokes an exotic location but serving sickeningly sweet sauces ladled over food that tastes as if it has been recently defrosted and fried. A friend and I once ate an entree of crispy chicken and later looked it up online to see how much sodium it contained. The answer was about what we were expecting but the calorie count was not; it was just under three thousand calories for the dish.
That being said, for Americanized Chinese food, it is not the worst I have ever had. (I also am not one of those people who use the term "Americanized" in a derogatory fashion. This is America, and Americanized ethnic food does not necessarily mean bad, it simply means it should be placed in a separate category from "authentic.") It's just that P.F. Chang's food costs two or three times the price of identical dishes from any average greasy-spoon Chinese takeout joint. A friend and I were once craving Asian food in Denver and were not sure of any other options, so we ate at P.F. Chang's. But in the San Gabriel Valley, a lack of Asian options is never a problem, and consequently I have not been to the Pasadena P.F. Chang's in more than seven years.
When Pei Wei first opened in East Pasadena, I tried it and found it to be exactly what I expected: I paid close to forty dollars for three shrimp dishes, only one of which was good. The other two were perhaps the saltiest entrees I have ever eaten. That experience, combined with the fact that Fortune Chinese Cuisine was across the street, serving larger portions of better food for less money, meant I never went back. (Fortune eventually made some changes, became worse than P.F. Chang's, and, not surprisingly, closed.) I was relatively certain that would be my one and only visit to Pei Wei.
Fast forward a few years to last Friday. My brother and I met at my parents' house to take a couple of their old pieces of furniture to Goodwill. After the ordeal - one of the chairs was in such bad shape Goodwill didn't even want it - we were trying to come up with a place for a quick lunch close by. My brother used an iphone app and suggested Pei Wei. I said I would give it another try.
"Maybe someone will take the chair while we're inside," I said hopefully as we parked.
"That would be great," he said. "Much better than if we come out and the chair is still here but my truck is gone."
This Pei Wei is one of the more boring looking structures you will ever see. If not for the narrow patio on the north side of the building it looks somewhat like a small warehouse. There were a few tables occupied but not more than ten customers in total. We briefly looked at the television screens flashing (why, I have no idea) the menus but found that annoying and walked over to the traditional menu hanging on the wall.
I was planning to order the orange chicken - which I admit is a little prosaic - but then spotted a special: Caramel Chicken. I could see a number of ways that this could go wrong, but the girl behind the counter assured me it was really good, so I decided to give it a try. We ordered six spring rolls to share and my brother ordered the Thai Blazing Noodles, choosing chicken as his protein.
We poured ourselves drinks and sat down. We noticed that the other tables waiting for food had numbers on top of them.
"How come we didn't get a number?" my brother asked.
"I dunno. Maybe because we're white."
He looked around the room. "But every single other customer in here is white, too."
This was a good point. After five minutes a server came over to our table and asked what number we were. She informed us it would be on our receipt. After confirming that we were the number she was looking for, she sat down the plates. Of the wrong food. My brother straightened it out and she went away, returning about a minute later with the correct food.
The spring rolls were lousy. They are advertised as containing ginger and onion but I did not taste either, and that's a shame, because they were very bland. My brother only ate half of one; he liked them even less than I did. (That evening, I reheated the leftover spring rolls in the oven and ate them with a spicy sauce; they were much better that way.) Fortunately, he liked his noodles a lot. I took a piece of his chicken and it was surprisingly tender and spicy. I could have eaten a bunch of them.
My caramel chicken was also surprisingly good. My fear was that it would be much too sweet, but it was not, and it had a nice amount of spice that crept up on the back end of each bite. I had requested brown rice and it was passable, if a little bland. It also came with a slaw of veggies with plenty of cilantro. This was delicious and I wished there was more of it.
I certainly don't plan on going to Pei Wei again, although this was a more enjoyable meal than my previous visit. It's more expensive than it should be (this meal was $28 for the two of us, and neither of us had alcohol) but it's still cheaper than P.F. Chang's. However, as it always comes down to with places like this, there are just far too many much better Asian options in the San Gabriel Valley for me to come here again.