House of Toys
So many restaurants thrive on the 79-year-old Country Club Plaza that most people probably assume it’s always been that way. But I suspect that the 36 restaurants within the Plaza’s fourteen square blocks may be the highest number yet. Until the 1970s, the Plaza was better known as a place to shop.
Flash back to when the Depression hit town. In the early 1930s, all the busiest and most popular restaurants were firmly established downtown. The only places to eat on the Plaza were Clare Martin’s Plaza Tavern and Veeder’s Café. By the 1950s, Martin’s Tavern had become the snazzy Putsch’s 210 (where Fedora is now), and the neighborhood boasted Neuman’s Delicatessen, a couple of unassuming diners, a lunch counter at the Woolworth’s store and a sandwich shop in the bowling alley.
Over the past two decades, downtown has lost its cachet as a restaurant location, and the Plaza has taken up the slack. In fact, restaurants have slowly taken over much of the traditional retail space: The old Swanson’s store is now the Cheesecake Factory, the former Macy’s was subdivided to make room for the Canyon Café, and Mi Cocina took over the Alaskan Furs location.
An even older furrier, Gerhardt Furs, was renovated to make way for the ill-fated Fountain Café. Then, three years ago, the space became home to the wildly popular P.F. Chang’s China Bistro. Although it serves comparable dishes, P.F. Chang’s couldn’t be more different from its closest culinary neighbor, Bo Ling’s (on the less-vibrant south side of Brush Creek), or from the Plaza’s nearly forgotten House of Toy, which specialized in old-fashioned American-Chinese dishes like egg foo yong and chop suey.
Neither Bo Ling’s nor P.F. Chang’s sells those dishes, simply because American taste in Chinese food has changed. So has our taste in ambience. Sure, the city is still dotted with mom-and-pop operations characterized by hanging paper lanterns and Chinatown tchotchkes scattered around the dining room, but they’re on the verge of extinction. The Arizona-based P.F. Chang’s (the initials are for creator Paul Fleming, the oilman who made millions with Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse franchises) is taking on the little Chinese joints in the same way that McDonald’s Ray Kroc outwitted independently owned drive-ins — Kansas City once had dozens of them — by revolutionizing the system so that newer seemed cheaper, tastier, faster and better.
Despite a very few Asian decorative touches, P.F. Chang’s looks more like a 1940s nightclub than any traditional Chinese-American restaurant. Suspended light fixtures float above the room like illuminated drums. The floors are polished wood, the music is contemporary pop and the sassy servers speak fluent English. Customers don’t have to deal with a language barrier by pointing at an elaborate menu and saying, “I’ll have number 44.” The quick-witted servers can ratchet up those tabs by enthusiastically suggesting an appetizer or two or any vintage from the sophisticated wine list.
Selling Chinese cuisine in such a completely American venue is a savvy business maneuver, but it rubs some diners the wrong way. My well-traveled friend Julia likes the food at P.F. Chang’s but hates the restaurant. “It’s too slick, too trendy, too popular,” she says. “It’s not a real place.”
But it’s real enough. P.F. Chang’s is packed every night, with long waits for a table. People love it precisely because it is slick, it is trendy and you can see one or two local demi-celebs (such as mayoral wanna-be Stan Glazer preening on his way to a table, or radio talk-show hosts, or a former big-time coke dealer) on each visit.
On one trip, I brought along my friend Marilyn, a former Broadway producer, who loved the energy of the dining room, the dark good looks of the waiter, the goblet-sized glass holding her Absolut martini and especially her dinner: lightly battered Crispy Honey Shrimp, a dish that had more in common with American soul food than with anything in China. Those shrimp dripped more grease and honey than a biscuit at a Birmingham church supper.
Equally Southern-inspired was the appetizer of Cantonese barbecued chicken, glazed in a sweet red sauce that was — like all the sauces served here — as shiny as shellac. Yes, you can eat those slices of chicken on a spongy steamed bun and poke some cucumber slivers and red-cabbage slaw on top, but the flavor screams Kentucky, not Canton.
Fans of P.F. Chang’s want familiar stuff that tastes good, like square dumplings stuffed with chopped shrimp, or thick noodles of calamari, deep-fried in an airy batter and tossed in that quintessential Forbidden City condiment: kosher salt. This restaurant started a mini-revolution with its lettuce wraps, those delicious do-it-yourself concoctions of wok-seared tofu (or chicken), onion, mint and lime that you fold into curls of cold iceberg lettuce. So many competitors stole the idea that you can now find everything but corn dogs wrapped in lettuce leaves.
Although many area restaurants have dropped 1950s-era lemon chicken, Chang’s has given the sticky retro concoction a fresh new twist. It serves the quick-fried chunks of battered bird in a tongue-twistingly tart citrus sauce. One taste was plenty for me (the sauce would be better on fried pastry), but my friend Bob adored it. There’s also a lot of citrus zest in another Old Guard dish, orange-peel beef, which deftly combines the sweet juice and bitter peel with fiery chili peppers in a sauce that’s nearly as addictive as opium.
Also packing heat is the punchy red-pepper-and-garlic glaze over plump, juicy Szechwan scallops. Ironically, though, the so-called “fiery” sauce that gives the sheen to a clump of stir-fried Asian eggplant (it looks like Bananas Foster) lacks any fire whatsoever; the dish is stranded without flavor, texture or excitement. Garlicky, caramelized slices of Mongolian beef have a bit more kick, draped with limp green threads of sautéed scallions (though the orange-peel version is more tender and succulent).
Patrons who want to spice up any of the dinner offerings (including an oversized bowl of wonton soup, bland but thick with bites of chicken, shrimp and fat, pork-stuffed dumplings) can add spoonfuls of the “sauce” each waiter prepares tableside, splashing in soy, white vinegar, chili oil, chili paste and hot mustard. Veteran servers know what they’re doing, but newer recruits slop together a salty, soy-heavy soup that’s often inedible, even in small doses.
Moderation should be the watchword for anyone who orders one of P.F. Chang’s gigantic desserts (only the banana spring rolls are actually made here), particularly the least Chinese of the lot: the Great Wall of Chocolate. This slab of moist chocolate cake gets a coating of thick, sugary frosting, its six layers rising up over a pool of raspberry purée. Three of us immediately went to work on the luxurious cake, but after thirty minutes and many cups of hot tea, the impressive pastry still looked as tall and indestructible as its namesake.
That giant hunk of cake is just as over-the-top as the décor, the noise level and the pleasurable irony in the artifice of P.F. Chang’s, where style reigns supreme and there’s often the crackle of sexual tension in the air. The cellophane-wrapped fortune cookies that arrive with the check are gratuitous; at P.F. Chang’s, good fortune is all too obvious.