March 10th, 2011 by Brian Schwartz – Comments (0)
I miss the joy of New York Chinatown. I’d wander the streets and find a place that looks like a rundown soup shop with six tables … but the menu would have over two hundred items and there’d be elegant dining rooms concealed in back. Inside the soup shop part there’s be a bunch of women shelling peas, people coming in and out with orders, groups of guys drinking beer and eating noodles, and everyone from China. I miss all that. Yes, there are now one or two restaurants in Tulsa which serve authentic Cantonese food, but it’s not always good food, and all in all I think P.F. Chang’s is the best around. In terms of decor, it can’t be beat.
I haven’t tinkered much with the brightness because I want you to see that painting. It’s an enormous mural painted in a very early style. It looks to me like Chinese scrolls of the Song Dynasty, such as the famous which was painted around 1100. But there are Oklahoma songbirds in it! It was painted just for Tulsa. I usually sit at the bar, under the mural. The bartenders give great service.
Don’t think of P.F. Chang’s as an authentic Chinese restaurant. If you do, you will be so busy spotting errors in their preparation that you won’t find time to enjoy your meal. Think of it as Chinese-inspired American food. If you do that, you will find plenty to like. Yes, some of the dishes are “dumbed down” for American tastes. Some have more sugar than they should. But many are not, even when you’d expect them to be. No gloppy sauce drowning your meat and veggies. Usually, there’s only enough sauce to coat the meat. Some dishes, such as Shrimp with Lobster Sauce ($13.50), use fermented black beans to give a strong funky flavor which I adore but which would have many a picky American eater screaming “Ewwwww!” The Mu Shu Pork ($11.75) is excellent; it hews fairly closely to the traditional northern Chinese recipe (though it doesn’t have daylily buds). And they’ve even come up with a few good innovations. They marinate the beef in the American Chinese classic “beef with broccoli” ($12.75), yielding a richer flavor. Sometimes they char beef or lamb on a wok to give it a barbecue sizzle. They add melon balls to the Hong Kong favorite of shrimp with candied walnuts in mayonnaise sauce ($15.50). I had lamb with cumin ($14.75) there a year before I found it in remote Sichuan restaurants in Queens. They even added a touch of mint, a welcome innovation. (Unfortunately, they later changed the recipe, added sugar and cut down on the cumin.) One of their best dishes is “hot fish” ($15.50)
It’s catfish pieces coated in potato starch, then gently stir-fried with snow peas with a tiny bit of a clear, tart sauce I’ve never found in a Chinese restaurant. Sadly, a year or two ago they changed the sauce, added more sugar and a slight reddish tinge. Tinkering with the recipe, drowning out the subtlety with sugar, seems to be a trend. The fish is still great, though. And they did add a few of those black beans to the sauce, and that’s an improvement.
The good news about P F Chang’s is that it proves that Americans are prepared to pay high prices to eat Chinese food in an elegant setting. The bad news is that you won’t see a single Chinese face, either at the front of the house or in the kitchen.
Born in NYC, age 0, on my birthday. College in Oxford at age 16. Law School in New Haven, Conn. 6 years travel in Africa and Asia. Haven’t done much lately. Still, I’m the only Tulsa member of the little-known Omega Society. www.theomegasociety.com
I speak enough Chinese to order food not on any English menu. Spanish French Italian too (not fluently but food-ently) My favorite restaurant is Jean-Georges in New York. But those NYC chefs would sell their soul to get the produce available from the farms around Inola.
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