Monday, September 2, 2013

Pei Wei: Pronounced "Yum"

"Mom, I don't think it's pronounced 'pee wee'," said Son of Hubmeister, chuckling at the dinner table as I launched into an account of my recent experiences at my new favorite chain, Pei Wei Asian Diner.

I'm glad that kid was home on summer break to set me straight (Don't you hate it when your kids correct you and they're right?). So, it's pronounced ''pay way," but however you say it, this place shines in the realm of "fast casual" eateries.

I rarely review chain restaurants because I avoid their contrived atmospheres and formulaic food, but Pei Wei has ensnared me with its fresh flavors and made-to-order stir-fry dishes. A scaled-down offshoot of P.F. Chang's, Pei Weis are few and far between in Tampa, with only two locations, both on Dale Mabry Highway, one in Palma Ceia and the other in Carrollwood. I've never noticed either one and haven't tried them yet, either. The store I have experienced is the lone Pei Wei location in Sarasota, off University Parkway in the shopping center on Cooper Creek Boulevard near I-75.

Things are "wok-ing" in the open kitchen. (Good things.)

We stumbled upon this spot after working up a hunger on a grocery run to Sarasota's Trader Joe's, then on to Total Wine & More, which is only a storefront away from Pei Wei in an expansive shopping complex.

Inside, a brightly lit menu board stopped us in our tracks as we made our way to the service counter where we ordered, paid and were handed a number to place on our table. Drinks are self-service and food runners deliver meals to each table, which might take the form of a booth, a high-top, a standard table or the diner counter overlooking the open kitchen. You seat yourself, so take your pick.

The contemporary décor features warm, earthy colors and the setup is inviting for those dining alone. Other reviewers have complained of deafening noise levels when the place gets busy, but neither of my visits left my ears ringing.

Unlike most Asian restaurants, the menu won't overwhelm you with mind-numbing choices, but a reasonable number of appetizers, salads and entrees is available. On our first visit we tried the Pei Wei Spicy Chicken Salad and Mongolian Beef. The salad ($7.75) was large and made a lovely presentation, with seared chicken, crisp lettuces, Napa cabbage, carrots, cukes, snap peas, scallions, rice sticks and tomatoes, all finely chopped and tossed with a light lime vinaigrette. I won't be trying to mimic the dressing at home, but this salad was a fresh-tasting, healthful option.

Hubmeister went for the Mongolian Beef, which the counter person said was a popular choice. No wonder. It was so tasty that we both ordered it on our return visit.

A delectable dish: Mongolian Beef and Brown Rice

The beef had an appealing and addictive crispness, and the sweet garlic-infused sauce, which also enveloped white mushrooms and scallions, was downright delicious. It seems this dish is a direct descendent of P.F. Chang's version but a heck of a lot cheaper ($8.95). We both got brown rice, which I normally pass on due to its weird texture, but I will always order it at Pei Wei. It was fluffy.

Hand-rolled egg rolls and a lightly spiced dipping sauce

We also tried the egg rolls ($3.95 for 2), which were stuffed with pork and veggies and did not appear to be out of the Sam's Club frozen food section. You can actually see pieces of pork in them. They were accompanied by a semi-spicy dipping sauce that I loved. Did I detect a trace of peanut butter in it?

Here's what else I loved: The food arrived steaming hot, and over at the self-service area was a shelf packed with spices for added five-alarm power. The iced teas were a step up from the generic restaurant versions, although Hubs didn't care for the chai or the other Asian tea (that I can't remember) that was offered. I had the chai and I liked it a lot.

Here's what we didn't like: There was one bathroom for each gender, as in, one toilet. If that one toilet is occupied, you need to watch for the door to open and make a beeline for it when it's available or you'll stand outside waiting in the dining room. Think: airplane routine.

Though it'll be hard to break away from the Mongolian Beef, on my next trip to Pei Wei I know I'll be trying the spicy Korean Steak Lettuce Wraps. Yum!

Verdict: Solid link in a chain

Pei Wei Asian Diner on Urbanspoon

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