In the 1960s, particularly in San Francisco, flower power ruled, a counter-culture revolution was underway, and psychedelic rock drifted from open windows in Haight-Ashbury. Just four miles east, and a world away culturally, a culinary revolution was happening in Chinatown thanks to Cecilia Chiang, the founder of both authentic Chinese cuisine in America and the legendary restaurant The Mandarin.
She has been called “the Julia Child of Chinese cooking,” and when she introduced authentic Northern Chinese cuisine to America, Chiang changed the dining landscape forever. Her acclaim as a chef, restaurateur, and advocate for Chinese cuisine blazed a path for other generations of Chinese and Asian restaurants, including the popular P.F. Chang’s brand of Asian-American cuisine.
A Successful Asian-Inspired Brand with a Stellar Pedigree
A billion-dollar brand with more than 200 restaurants across the country, P.F. Chang’s is a household name with a unique history. Its roots, dedication to Asian food, and culinary pedigree come directly from Chiang — her son, Philip Chiang, is one of the founding partners. He learned how to cook “the Cecilia way” alongside his mother in her restaurant, The Mandarin, and over the years developed his own cooking style that made him a popular chef both in her restaurants and on his own at his Asian bistro, Mandarette.
It was at this restaurant that he met Paul Fleming, a regular customer who lived in Arizona and was desperate for good Chinese food. He convinced Philip to come to Scottsdale, Arizona, and together they founded P.F. Chang’s in 1993 in a shopping mall. This unlikely partnership between Paul Fleming (that’s the P.F. part), who was also the owner of the Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse Franchise in California, and Philip Chiang (that’s the Chang part) turned out to be blessed from the start.
Its first weekend in business, the restaurant was packed with enthusiastic diners who couldn’t get enough of Philip’s menu, which included dishes from Asia with a focus on the upscale Chinese wok cooking found in Northern China. Rather than change the Northern Chinese cuisine entirely, Philip cooked it “simpler, fresher,” and his new approach launched a dynasty that continues to thrive 23 years later. This longevity has been sustained in part by the restaurant’s mission, which remains the same today: Offer guests simple recipes that are always prepared from scratch every day, and ensure each recipe features only a few clean ingredients selected for their incredible flavor and nutritional benefits.
A Modern Twist on Classic Asian Cuisine
Philip’s inventive dishes and Fleming’s insistence on American-style service offered diners a new experience. Friendly service, incredible décor (every hand painted mural in each restaurant is unique and depicts twelfth-century China), and regional Asian-themed menus were complemented by one of the industry’s first progressive wine lists – a wine-by-the-glass program that included more than 100 wines – and an extensive Asian-inspired dessert menu.
A Farm to Work Philosophy from the Beginning
Success in the restaurant industry is never a guarantee, but since it launched, P.F. Chang’s has made its food and signature beverages from scratch, every day, in each individual restaurant. Dim sum is hand-folded, fresh ginger root is juiced for house-made ginger beer, and even sauces are made from scratch.
Nothing but the freshest ingredients goes into every dish, and to ensure this just-picked quality, a third-generation family farm has grown P.F. Chang’s green onions for the last 10 years. "When the recipes are so simple, every ingredient is really important,” Philip said. “In our signature Mongolian Beef, for example, the beef and the green onion are intentionally hand-cut to the same length in order to be eaten together. Both the beef and the green onions are essential to the texture and flavor."
Clean ingredients, purposeful recipes, and the power of a fiery wok are part of the Farm to Wok™ approach that has been the brand’s food philosophy since the day it launched. “It’s been our story – and now we are telling it,” said Dwayne Chambers, head of marketing at P.F. Chang’s. “Many guests don’t know that every one of our restaurants has a scratch kitchen. This means our chefs are preparing food fresh every day – chopping vegetables, hand rolling sushi, and crafting handmade cocktails from fresh squeezed fruits. Farm to Wok™ is allowing us to share the stories of the people who make it possible.”
Affordable, friendly, fun, an early adopter or originator of new food and drink trends, P.F. Chang’s boasts an impressive list of first or superlatives you may find surprising. Here is a list of some of our favorites:
Today’s chefs follow in Philip’s footsteps and create new twists on classic dishes from across Asia by mixing regional ingredients in unexpected ways to satisfy culinary curiosity. The best Asian herbs and vegetables are delivered and chopped daily, and the meat is fresh and sliced right before it hits the wok.
Philip’s preference for wok cooking (a cooking technique that is more than 2,000 years old) was more than a nod to his lineage and training. Wok cooking is one of the purest forms of cooking, creating an intense flame (what is called “wok hei” or “breath of wok”) that imparts unique, smoky, caramelized flavors and crispy textures favored in Northern China.
Wok cooking also allowed the restaurant to feature classic favorites inspired by recipes Cecilia invented at The Mandarin, like Mongolian Beef, which was originally made with lamb, and the Chicken Lettuce Wraps, which were originally made with shredded squab. Philip’s versions of these classic dishes are still some of the most popular dishes on the menu.
P.F. Chang’s is the restaurant first credited with putting lettuce wraps on the food map, and this menu staple is one of the most-copied items in the restaurant industry. Forget trying to copy it; the recipe is top secret and is closely guarded by all of the chefs.
P.F. Chang’s kitchens are all-scratch kitchens, meaning the food is made from scratch every day, in every restaurant, and the chefs use all-natural meat, responsibly sourced seafood, and local produce whenever possible.
According to The New York Times, P.F. Chang’s was the first national restaurant to use Sriracha in 2000, and its restaurants use nearly 100,000 bottles of Sriracha per year.
Some say the most important role in the P.F. Chang’s kitchen is hand-folding the dim sum, which starts early every day, along with hand-folding wontons and egg rolls.
Chocolate lovers flock to P.F. Chang’s for the savory dishes but stay for The Great Wall of Chocolate, a P.F. Chang’s tradition.
P.F. Chang’s was one of the first restaurants to begin offering gluten-free menu items in 2003, and all of the dishes on the gluten-free menu (including the gluten-free soy sauce) are carefully prepared in a separate area of the kitchen.
In Chinese culture, soup is traditionally served at the end of the meal to help with digestion. P.F. Chang’s features a range of soups to try including Chicken Noodle Soup that’s made to order with an Asian-inspired kick and Hot and Sour Soup.
Head to a P.F. Chang’s near you to share classic dishes and discover what good Asian food tastes like. There’s always a new way to experience P.F. Chang’s and discover the flavors of China, Korea, Japan, Thailand, Vietnam, and the other exciting food destinations in Asia. P.F. Chang’s invites you to taste the Farm to Wok™ difference.
For more Washington DC dining and travel news, click here. Summer Whitford is the D.C. Editor and a food, drink and travel writer at The Daily Meal. You can follow her on Twitter @FoodandWineDiva and on Instagram at thefoodandwinediva.