P.F. Chang's (happy hour)

If memory serves, though it probably will less often as the years continue to pass, P.F. Chang's opened their branch in downtown Boise back in 2005.  Just a quick aside: I don't call it "Bodo".  And I'm not going to.  Ever.  Anyway, like all new places, especially nationwide chains, it was a madhouse when the doors opened.  It continued to be a madhouse for months afterward, and it seemed that every time I was in the area (though I'll grant you I don't make it downtown often except for hockey games), it was always teeming with people.  Add to that the fact that everyone was telling me how expensive it was, and I just never went. 

A while back, my girlfriend went there with several co-workers and hasn't stopped raving about the place since.  I agreed with her that it was time for me to finally try it, and since we were planning to be only a few blocks away at The Flicks watching The Girl Who Played With Fire recently, it seemed like the perfect time.

Another quick aside for those who are wondering about the film: it was damn good.  Now, on to the restaurant.  I have to admit that I was pretty impressed with the decor after spending so much time in Chinese restaurants that all have very similar aesthetics (or no aesthetic at all), so walking in I was immediately struck by how clean the restaurant was, and really dug the whole dark, muted vibe of the place.  But, since the weather was genuinely pleasant for the first time in a while, we decided to eat on the patio.  We'd considered going for a standard lunch or dinner or even the prix fixe option, but eventually decided that since many of the things we were interested in were available on the happy hour menu, we'd just do that.  In fairly short order, we had a nice corner table on the patio, drinks in hand and were perusing the menu.

Estancia Pinot Grigio for m'lady, warmed Gekkeikan sake for yours truly

Between people-watching and enjoying our beverages, we managed to agree to a selection of dishes.  We both like spring rolls and she likes most vegetarian dishes, so those were a no-brainer.  We're also both fond of pot stickers so we got the veggie dumplings as well, steamed to contrast the fried spring rolls.  Both of those we would split.  Acting as the entrées, she would have the famous chicken lettuce wraps, and I chose the seared ahi tuna.

Veggie spring rolls

The first thing we both tried were the spring rolls, which were very good.  Not a revelation or anything, spring rolls are fairly standardized after all, but it was obvious that the ingredients were top notch.  The skins were thin and crispy, the veggies plentiful and well-seasoned, and the rolls had been deep fried right so they didn't come out dripping oil.  The next dish wasn't quite so impressive.

Steamed vegetable dumplings

My gal and I were both put off by the steamed dumplings pretty instantly.  It took a second to figure what exactly was off, but I finally came to the conclusion that there was just too much ginger in them.  I even tried one without the dipping sauce to confirm that the problem lay with the dumplings themselves.  Now I adore ginger, but just like garlic, lemongrass or any other aromatic, the key is balance.  My girlfriend and I both agree that we can handle much stronger levels of ginger in sweet recipes like cookies or cakes, but in light or savory dishes it's easy to overpower everything else.  In the case of a steamed vegetable dumpling, it's very easy.  Perhaps they would have been better fried, which is an option, but I'm unlikely to test this theory anytime soon with so many things on the menu that I have yet to try.

The famous chicken lettuce wraps.  Again.

I have to admit that my brain was in anti-hype mode going into this, but I'll be damned if the chicken lettuce wraps aren't every bit as good as everyone is always saying.  The seasonings used to flavor the chicken are just plain wonderful, the lettuce leaves were big and crisp, and the fried noodles provided a nice added texture.  There are a lot of copycat recipes available, but for some reason a lot of them make no mention of the fried noodles.  My mother even took a stab at making this dish (with the noodles, of course), and actually came pretty close to it, which means that I'll likely start playing around to see how close I can get.  Under other circumstances I would have been very jealous of her food, but I did have something to occupy myself with.

Seared ahi tuna, an appetizer if you can believe that!

As I've said before, I have a habit of eating one item at a time in order from least to most favorite.  Whether it's mild OCD or just a way to focus entirely on one flavor before moving on to the next and build anticipation, I'm not sure, but I don't see it changing anytime soon.  This time was even more difficult, because from the second I laid eyes on my seared tuna, I was loathe to disrupt it just so I could eat.  So it sat there, perched on a pile of mixed greens, drizzled in a mildly spicy mustard sauce, while everything else on the table was consumed.  I remember thinking that this was the difference between a cook and a chef.  Finally, with a sigh, I tucked in.  Any trace amounts of envy I felt toward my beloved's lettuce wraps were instantly blown away.  The quality of the tuna was excellent, better even than what I'd had at my recent trip to The Melting Pot, practically melting in my mouth.  The fish had been seared beautifully, almost blackened on the outside.  The mustard sauce did as it should, complimenting and elevating the dish without overpowering it.  The sauce was also terrific on the mixed greens and the sliced cucumber beneath, making a nice finish to my meal.  When all was said and done, I felt like I'd just had a gourmet salad rather than an appetizer.

My final verdict?  P.F. Chang's is an Americanized Chinese eatery, just like the vast majority of other Chinese eateries in the Treasure Valley.  The differences are the atmosphere, attention to detail and high quality of ingredients.  Will I return?  As we walked back to the car, we were already discussing the things we would try the next time we went.  The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest opens at The Flicks on 11/12, sounds like a good excuse to me...

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