The P.F. Chang's people have brought another restaurant chain to Maryland, called Pei Wei Asian Diner.
Pei Wei is more casual than P.F. Chang's China Bistro, with customers ordering at the counter, but the food delivers a similar level of energy, and the setting is equally pleasing, though in a different way.
P.F. Chang's, which has locations at The Mall in Columbia and in Bethesda, specializes in intensely flavored Chinese food, with showy presentations and lots of spice. They're fancy enough for a minor special occasion, maybe a birthday that doesn't end in a five or a zero.
Pei Wei isn't intended for fancy occasions, but it delivers a satisfying dining experience at great prices.
The Pei Wei (pronounced "pay way," not "pee wee") chain has been around since 2000 but has come to Maryland only in recent months. Locations are on York Road and in Columbia's Dobbin Square.
I went to Dobbin Square, which opened in December, and found a lot to like. The large restaurant is attractive, with black-topped tables and lots of dark wood. After you order at the counter, you can watch your food being prepared in the open kitchen. The food is brought to your table. Though service is limited - diners are given cups to get their own drinks - it's uniformly friendly and quick.
Large black-and-white photos on the walls show people sitting at large tables, enjoying food together, and that's clearly the kind of kind of feeling that Pei Wei promotes. The restaurant has a children's meal (teriyaki or honey-seared chicken or lo mein) and it sells beer and wine, which sets it apart from many quick-casual restaurants.
While P.F. Chang's focuses on Chinese food, Pei Wei draws from a broader geographic range. Its menu is short, but it includes pad Thai ($6.50) and Vietnamese chicken salad rolls ($6.50). The menu's centerpiece, though, is the mix-and-match option, which lets diners decide which ingredients and sauces they want. They select chicken ($7.50), pork ($7.50), beef ($7.95), shrimp or scallops ($9) or veggies and tofu ($6.75), then choose from 11 sauces, including a sweet and sour, lemon pepper and orange peel.
Each sauce comes with its own extras. The Pei Wei Spicy comes with scallions, garlic, snap peas and carrots, and the Ginger Broccoli comes with scallions and broccoli.
Diners are not encouraged to tinker with the formula, but I had no problem making a special request of no veggies with my sweet-and-sour chicken.
From the steaming, salty won-ton soup ($2.25) to the free fortune cookies and orange segments offered for dessert, the meal proceeded without flaw. Spring rolls (two for $3.95) were crispy and only slightly greasy, breaking open to reveal a steaming melange of ginger-flavored cabbage, onions, noodles and mushroom.
My favorite dish was the Pei Wei Spicy Chicken Salad ($7.50), overflowing with crisp, cool cabbage, lettuce, cucumber, shredded carrot and tomato, topped with crisp, warm nuggets of chicken and coated - not doused - in a sprightly lime vinaigrette. My least favorite was the shrimp with lobster sauce bowl ($7.50), with plenty of plump shrimp, but a sauce that was too heavy for me, coating the ingredients in a thick velvety blanket.
I preferred the shrimp with one of the signature sauces, the Asian Coconut Curry, a masterful mix of sweet and heat that included red pepper, basil and string beans.
Beef in the Mongolian sauce, basically soy sauce, scallions and mushroom, was on the heavy side but delicious.
The first Pei Wei opened in Arizona in 2000, according to company spokeswoman Laura Cherry. Most of the 80 restaurants are still in the Southwest, Cherry said, but that's starting to change.
While P.F. Chang's has more than 130 stores, Pei Wei is eventually expected to have more. If things go well in Maryland, look for more Pei Wei Asian Diners on the East Coast, Cherry said.
Pei Wei Asian Diner
6478 Dobbin Center Way, Columbia
Lunch and dinner daily
Appetizers: $2.25-$6.95, entrees $6.50-$7.95
*** (3 STARS)
*** (3 STARS
*** (3 STARS
[Outstanding:**** Good:*** Fair or uneven:** Poor:*