This is the first part of my restaurant reviews of the best Eugene has to offer in Chinese restaurants: P. F. Chang’s, Fortune Inn, and Ocean Sky.
No, it’s not a pretty sight. Those with squeamish tummies should stop here and click away from the review, click away from the review.
I love Chinese food. Growing up, there was one Chinese restaurant in our town in Michigan, House of Lee, and I loved everything about it, from the exotic paintings of bridges and bamboo-hat-wearing people on the wall to the fried wonton pieces you could float in your hot-n-sour soup to chopsticks, which, as a picky eater who would meticulously remove onions and chunks of tomatoes from my meals, I found downright miraculous. It was much more efficient with chopsticks. Indeed, I went through a period in high school eating everything with chopsticks, just to see if I could. And my very first cookbook? The spiral-bound Time-Life Chinese cookery volume, circa 1969.
Living in the Bay Area irrevocably spoiled me for American-Chinese food, because actual, real, non-bamboo-hat-wearing Chinese people lived there. I gorged my way through my vegetarian college days at Berkeley eating every kind of stir-fried vegetable imaginable, and fell off the wagon eating dim sum (a felix culpa if I ever saw one). After college, I spent a month house-sitting on a small island in Hong Kong, and relied on the tiny market to make my suppers, resulting in odd combinations with dried orange peels, rambutan, cloud’s ear mushrooms, gourds and eggplant. It was still delicious, every last bit.
Because I’m an example of how a white-bread/bred palate can adjust to and love more authentic Chinese food, and I’ve seen how simple it is to make cost-effective, better-than-sweet-n-sour Chinese food, I am baffled and disappointed that Eugene doesn’t have one amazingly good Chinese restaurant. Being a town of mostly white people, I understand why they cater to the American-Chinese style of cooking, and many overweight people, I understand why they cater to the Chinese buffet crowd, but honestly, there is a demand for a good, regional Chinese restaurant that aims for less sweet, gloopy sauces laden with cornstarch and MSG, and more crackly punchiness of szechuan pepper, chiles, and sour preserved vegetables. Eugene has the resources for these types of restaurants: we have three Asian markets (King’s on W. 11th, Yi Shen on Chambers, and my favorite, Sunrise on W. 29th).
Perhaps this desperation for good Chinese was what fueled the recent mania for the newly opened P. F. Chang’s in town. The P. F. in P. F. Chang’s is its founder, Paul Fleming, and Mr. Fleming has seen wild success in his theme eatery, with besotted white people lining up for hours for the privilege of eating mediocre American-Chinese food fancied up in rich decor with equally rich prices. The P. F. Chang’s in Eugene is so popular that some departments at the university even take their job candidates there, much to my shame.
My shame was even greater when I went there for lunch the other day, just so I could say I’ve been there. The menu contains many of the same items you can find in the Safeway Chinese food buffet at astronomical prices for the quality: Pepper Steak ($13), Beef with Broccoli ($12), Moo Goo Gai Pan ($13), Chang’s Spicy Chicken (“our version of General Chu’s”, $13), Chicken with Black Bean Sauce ($12.50), Sweet and Sour Pork ($12). They serve several of these in “Traditional Lunch Bowls” with a cup of soup for $7.50 – 9.50. The dishes are fancy and the portions are decent and the food is edible, I guess, if gloopy, sweetened, and full of MSG.
There is also a new grill menu which alleges it is an ancient Chinese secret, that is, if ancient China grilled ribeye steaks and crap with cheese on top, and unappetizing mini-desserts which only cost $2, but for which you have to suffer looking at carrot cake crammed into an oversized shot glass, frosting smearing down the sides, so it will be the same size as the puddings in the other glasses (or are those cake, too?). And cocktails. O the cocktails. Horrific combinations of everything that sounds vaguely Asian on the market, and then some. I can’t even.
A recent review of a sushi place in Eugene made a bold claim about the kind of service Eugeniuses demand:
The owners need to go to The Olive Garden or PF Changs to see what GREAT SERVICE is really like!!!
Um, no. No, no, no, and no.
As with many theme restaurants, excuse me, dining experiences, the P.F. Chang’s waitstaff has a ritual of asking you if you’ve been to P. F. Chang’s before. “No,” I replied brusquely, not wanting the spiel about my waiter’s favorite dishes or how exquisitely wonderful the next hour of my life would be, “but I’m ready to order.”
I opted for two dishes I usually like, the Dan-Dan Noodles ($10) and a small order ($3, versus $6 for the large) of the only thing that seemed really promising on the whole menu, the Spicy Green Beans with “Sichuan preserves, fiery chili sauce and garlic.” Then I asked for some tea, something simple, because I didn’t see regular Chinese tea on the menu of fruited, sweetened teas (Sweet Ginger Peach Decaf, Citrus Spice, etc., etc.) The waiter looked flummoxed and said the closest thing they had was “Organic Green: A slightly sweet Asian brew of three certified organic green teas.” I told him that I didn’t like sweet flavors, a theme I had to keep insisting during my meal at P. F. Chang’s, and asked if they had something like plain Oolong. Here, his eyes brightened: “oh yes, we do! You’ll love it! It’s my favorite!”
I know I’m going to sound like a total ass, but I don’t want to know some skinny, young white teenager’s favorite dishes at P. F. Chang’s.
A few minutes later, he plunked down a silly little iron pot of Dragon Eye Oolong (“Chinese Oolong with safflower, peach and apricot,” $2), which was unpleasantly fruity and perfumy, and became too sour and odorific to drink within 10 minutes.
Just before my noodles and beans arrived, the waiter came back, and with a flourish, he unveiled the special P. F. Chang’s Dumpling sauce, prepared tableside. He pointed out the little dishes and then dumped them all together: sweetened (!) soy sauce, that nasty Chinese hot sweet mustard that comes in ketchup packages, vinegar (“for flavor!”), sweet chili sauce, and chili oil (“my favorite!”). I didn’t suppose it mattered that I didn’t order potstickers or anything else that might require such a sauce.
When the meal arrived, they had prepared a large beans instead of a small beans (for which I was generously comped, probably the only thing the service did correctly), and the waiter brought two bowls of rice, putatively because I had ordered two entrees. I could only manage to choke down a third of the noodles, which were ramen noodles with gloopy minced chicken, garlic and red pepper and garnished with a few sorry bean sprouts and cucumbers, no peanuts or sesame whatsoever, and about half of the green beans, which were too sweet but not bad tasting, especially since they had a kick.
I took the rest home, thinking my husband would eat them for dinner, but he was so repelled by the smell and sight of the congealed masses that he refrained. By that point, I was sick to my stomach and couldn’t eat the leftovers myself (a rare occurrence with even mediocre Chinese food), so I threw them away.
Now, to be fair, my husband did eat a dinner at P. F. Chang’s and he said the Chengdu Spiced Lamb ($14) was okay, but too sweet, and the Wild Alaskan Sockeye Salmon Steam with Ginger (“Served over stir-fried shiitake mushrooms, bokchoy, tomatoes (?) and asparagus,” trendy fusion café-style, $18) was not bad. He can’t remember anything else he ate. I’ve heard people like the Chang’s Chicken in Soothing Lettuce Wraps, perhaps because they are soothing?
Tums, frankly, was more soothing…and necessary.
Stay tuned for Part II, in which I explore non-ridiculously expensive and pretentious American-style Chinese food options in Eugene.