It’s rare that I’m afforded the opportunity to review a restaurant that can be deemed “a chain,” but that’s exactly what happened this week. There was a toss-up over which of the two higher-end eateries that recently found footing in our Shoppes at Bel Air to review. Neither are your typical “mom and pop” stores.

It was either going to be Grimaldi’s Pizza or P.F. Chang’s. I was up for either. My dining companions, however, enjoyed pizza for lunch so we limped the 30 or so feet westward to our Asian option.

It’s been so long since I visited a P.F. Chang’s. The last time I set foot in one was maybe 16 or 17 years ago somewhere close to Irvine, California, when I worked a two-year stint in Orange County. I remember it being pretty good, maybe in an open mall-type setting, but I do recall enjoying it.

In recent years I’ve noticed frozen P.F. Chang products in the grocery stores, leading me to think, “Wow, these guys have really made the big time.” Big time can mean many things — including, but not limited to, a slip in quality for mass production. Fingers crossed that would not be the case tonight.

It was a boys’ night without my boys. In between rain showers and flood alerts, Rob and his son, Ulysses, managed to pick me up for a 6:30 p.m. dinner. I was looking to unwind from a particularly stressful day and was in need of some good company. The silver-tongued, quick-witted, trash-talking teen Ulysses is as much of a stress relief as he is a source of stress. He can be quite entertaining.

I gave everyone the choice of an entrée and I ordered the rest.

When you go to P.F. Chang’s you have to try the Chicken Lettuce Wraps ($9.50). Leaves of iceberg form the pocket for this build-your-own appetizer (listed under the Street Fare portion of the menu) as you scoop nutty chunks of chicken made from a secret family recipe. Consider this one of their signature dishes. I love things as simple as this. It was quite good.

Off to a stellar start, the three of us each placed an entrée order knowing the dishes would be served family style and we’d all get a taste. I also ordered a sushi roll to get a better idea of just what we were dealing with here.

In minutes the main courses were on our table, long plates with large, healthy portions. I’d have preferred the sushi come out with the appetizers but our server neglected to place the order. He owned up to his mistake and it was out in a couple of minutes.

I’d chosen Walnut Shrimp with Melon ($17.95), our only true seafood dish. Served with my choice of white rice, the toughest part was getting a walnut, melon and shrimp in the same bite, but when you managed to do so it was pretty stellar. I couldn’t make out the pale sauce but it was slightly sweet, with the tangy flavor of the melon (honeydew?) complementing the savory shrimp and walnuts.

Ulysses was all about the Kung Pao Chicken ($15.95). This is my test of anything Chinese. Heavy on the red chili peppers and Sichuan sauce, this version was all peanuts and green onions offsetting the chicken. Forget the mountains of veggies you normally find at the “order by number” places. This was more focused. We all approved.

It was Rob who was the wisest of the three (don’t get used to me saying that), ordering the Korean Chicken Stir-Fry ($14.95). This dish really imparted that Korean flavor I love with a good amount of red peppers, onion, green beans, sweet chili sauce and kimchi slaw. If I return anytime soon this will be my order. Better with the brown rice than the white, I found the flavor remarkable and the vegetables pleasantly not overdone.

Our belated sushi was in the form of the Kung Pao Dragon Roll ($10.95). This one is a California roll topped with seared ahi tuna, Sriracha, tempura crunchies and peanuts. Rob and I had a good time watching Ulysses fumble with the chopsticks, poking and stabbing and almost cursing the target but finally getting a couple pieces into his mouth. Yes, there is better sushi in this town but it wasn’t bad.

As a matter of fact none of it was bad, as the three of us pretty much scraped our plates clean. If P.F. Chang’s has gotten too big for its britches then it must be in a good way. Making a home in a mall in Mobile is something we should be happy about. I’d say the food is not too shabby. The downside is it may be a little pricey for what you’re getting. There was a little bit of sticker shock for a Wednesday night dinner for three, but to be fair we weren’t bashful when ordering.

A lot of you complained when P.F. Chang’s first opened — stories of food being comped because of long wait times, perhaps due to undertrained staff, logistics and the sheer popularity of the opening month. I’d say they have worked out those kinks, which is why I’m not the first in line to any new establishment.

When we left our table two pairs of chopsticks fell out of Ulysses’ pants. Apparently he felt his skills were inferior enough that he needed to take some home to practice. I added a little to the tip, so no one was hurt.

I think P.F. Chang’s holds up as well as it did 15 years ago. Don’t be skittish about mall dining. With a full bar you may need this place come holiday season, when your wife asks you to hold her purse. I hear the pizza joint 30 or so feet eastward is pretty good, too.

P. F. Chang’s
China Bistro
3201 Airport Blvd., #A-10
Mobile 36606