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Pei Day 

P.F. Chang's mothership launches a satellite Asian diner

Guess who's coming to dinner in your neighborhood? Scottsdale, AZ-based P.F. Chang's China Bistro, Inc. (Nasdaq PFCB) has expanded into the fast, casual market in a not-so-laidback way. Pei Wei Asian Diner (and it's pronounced Pay Way, not Pee Wee) opened in Ballantyne a few weeks ago in a strip center which also contains the area's first drive-through Starbucks. Speed and convenience, evidently, are sought-after features in that part of town.

The 98-seat Pei Wei offers fast service of dishes similar to those found at the mother Chang, only wei cheaper and faster. According to PW General Manager Matt Hantelmann, roughly half the menu is similar to the offerings at the full-service Chang's. The remaining dishes focus on flavors from Japan, Korea, Thailand and Vietnam. Hentelmann moved to Charlotte after managing a Pei Wei in Austin, TX.

This Pei Wei is the Carolinas' first, although several more are planned for the Charlotte area. The restaurants will be located only in cities that already have a P.F. Chang's.

Wei's interior is pleasant and crisp. Floors are glossed in a vivid red, while table tops are linen free and set with chopsticks bins. Red-hued wood, including that in the mock-coffered ceiling, is used to punctuate the clean lines. A long, slightly curved banquette separates the dining area visually, yet the appealing sounds of sizzling woks can be heard throughout the room.

We walked by a lit wall menu reminiscent of the rosters posted above order clerks at old-style fast food joints. At Pei Wei, the lighting is subtle and contributes to a full-service restaurant ambience. The menu, the same throughout the day, presents $6 to $8 entrees and the kids' meal is $3.95 inclusive of drinks. Four dishes are denoted as ones the kitchen can make, with some adjustments, gluten free. Spiciness is also marked. Dishes are offered with a choice of protein or vegetables, while either white or brown rice accompanies the signature plates. A half dozen inexpensive bottles of wine are offered by the glass and beer is available as well.

A young enthusiastic woman greeted us at the door and asked if we had any questions about the menu. We asked if the spring rolls were fried. Much to her manager's chagrin, she had to ask. But it's not about service here.

Almost as soon as we had picked up our drinks and fortune cookies, runners brought steaming dishes out to the table. Seriously. It took less than five minutes. First up were the minced chicken laced with soy and shiitake mushroom lettuce wraps a la Chang's. Other Chang cloned recipes include the honey-seared chicken and the Mongolian beef. The attention to plating -- albeit on plastic -- was surprising. A handful of crisp wontons, distended with cream cheese and crab, were anchored in a sweet sauce, an artistic awareness not commonly found at fast casual spots. Laden with bean sprouts, carrots, and pan-seared scallops, the lo mein bowl was perfunctory at best while the coconut milk curry was missing the layered flavor notes. A heady dose of ginger and basil is needed. But it's hard to argue with a $7.25 entrée.

According to a company press release, P. F. Chang's revenues increased 17% to $203 million for the third quarter which ended October 2, 2005, from $174 million in the third quarter of 2004. During this one quarter, sales at Pei Wei Asian Diner units accounted for $34.4 million of these consolidated revenues. Each Pei Wei unit is expected to generate just under $2.2 million annually, or $42K per week. Take away generates about 35 to 40 percent of the business.

It's not surprising that a successful chain such as Chang's would ride the crest of popular fast casual dining. Whereas in the 1990s big steak houses and high end ethnic restaurants became de rigueur, nowadays folks are not so sure about the direction of the country and the economy except the surety that gas prices will cut into discretionary funds. Diners are playing it safe and nothing is as safe as formulaic corporate food.

For Asian cuisine, the idea of being fast casual is déjà vu all over again. Several decades ago, Asian food served at home grown shops was both casual and inexpensive. Many entrepreneurs, however, realized the American preference for ambience and high-end Chinese restaurants entered the market in a forceful way.

Today, Pei Wei has much in the way of competition. Mama Fu's, for example, has been in the Charlotte market for several years. And, across the nation, increasing numbers of fast casual Asian concepts are on the horizon, poised to capture the cuisine's popularity in the US. As always, an eventual shakeout will occur. But one thing is for sure: local restaurateurs serving Asian cuisine need to take note of this national trend.

Eaters' Digest

Colony Grill, a "neighborhood styled restaurant," will open by month's end in the space once occupied by ONEO at 7725 Colony Road. Next door, expect another outcropping of a popular lake area pizzeria and Italian restaurant.

Have a restaurant tip, compliment, complaint? Do you know of a restaurant that has opened, closed, or should be reviewed? Does your restaurant or shop have news, menu changes, new additions to staff or building, upcoming cuisine or wine events? Note: We need events at least 12 days in advance. Contact Tricia with questions or story ideas via email at triciachildress@creativeloafing.com; or voice mail: 704-522-8334, ext. 136; or fax: 704-944-3605.

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