Worth the wait?

I’ve been putting off this review of P.F. Chang’s for one simple reason: I’ve been unwilling to endure the one- to two-hour wait to be seated that has plagued this popular Roseville restaurant since it opened last year. A small but successful corporate chain restaurant specializing in mid- to upscale pan-Asian cuisine, P.F. Chang’s belongs to the new school of establishments that refuse to take reservations for parties under the size of 10. You can call ahead and put your name on a waiting list, but you still have to wait. And wait. And wait.

I thought I’d beat the wait by showing up for dinner—alone—at 8:30 on a Tuesday night. I thought wrong. The place was packed with holiday shoppers giddily going over the booty they’d collected at the nearby Roseville Megamall. “Party of one?” the incredibly thin hostess asked, shimmering in her black polyester hip-huggers. “That’ll be 35 minutes.”

There was the bar, of course. It’s the dominant feature of the restaurant, a circular, centralized hub from which the interior’s Frank Lloyd Wright-meets-Genghis Kahn design seems to radiate. A parachute-like circular awning hovers overhead; cylindrical lights hang from it like cocoons. Patrons on tall chairs belly up to the bar, creating the impression that you’ve arrived just in time for an important meeting with some Chinese warlord. It’s intriguing—but there’s still that wait.

Fortunately, there was a table-for-one right next to the bar that the hostess had temporarily forgotten about. I was seated and took the rest of the place in: The circular bar is set in a rectangular building; the horizontal and vertical lines of square wooden table surfaces and layered rock walls create a terraced effect that’s occasionally broken by the curved lines of, say, a 12-foot-tall stone replica of an ancient Chinese war horse, or the recessed circular light sources in the ceiling the size of Japanese Taiko drums. The space feels monumental, but not bombastic, thanks to modulated amber lighting that’s among the most pleasing in the Sacramento area.

But still, there’s that wait. I sat at my single, solitary table 10 minutes before my waiter noticed me. He was friendly, polite and attentive when he did arrive, but after I placed my order, the waiting continued. It seemed a little odd, because it was getting late and the restaurant was clearing out. Finally, after 10 more minutes, my hot-and-sour soup and shrimp dumplings arrived.

The soup was excellent: a thick, tangy, molasses-colored broth with spicy, slow-building heat. The shrimp dumplings were good—lots of plump shrimp meat—but they weren’t anything you can’t get for half the price at one of the dim sum dens off Stockton Boulevard. That’s kind of the way the dishes at Chang’s go, from competent to superlative. Never bad, occasionally outstanding.

I’d had the same experience on a previous lunchtime visit. Chicken in Soothing Lettuce Wraps, for instance, was a little too soothing, thanks to blandly spiced ground chicken. But I called P.F. Chang’s molten hot rendition of Kung Pao Chicken—cubes of white breast meat quick-fried with peanuts, chili, peppers and scallions—the best in Sacramento.

After waiting 20 more minutes for my entrées to arrive, I can say the same thing about Chang’s version of Mongolian Beef. Thin strips of steak, nearly devoid of all fat, are stir-fried with spices, garlic and scallions until the meat is just crispy on the edges. It’s surprisingly sweet, and missing the spicy heat usually associated with the dish, which in this case turned a traditional staple into a bold, culinary statement.

Mango Chicken, one of the latest additions to the menu, takes the opposite approach: Where you’d expect sweet, you get spicy heat, almost as if the sauce covering the large chunks of white breast meat had been de-mangoed. Some fine-tuning remains.

That’s OK, though. It’s nice to see that P.F. Chang’s is willing to take chances. It’s another attribute that sets it above the typical corporate chain. Is it worth the wait? I think it is. Unfortunately, so does everybody else.