P.F. Chang’s Home Menu

P.F. Chang’s Home Menu

I Paid: $8.99 per Meal for 2 (prices may vary by region)

Taste: 3 stars

Marketing: 4 stars

Not long ago, I prepared some sweet-and-sour pork at home, using a seemingly simple recipe from Irene Kuo’s The Key to Chinese Cooking. Seven hundred pots, pans, and stirring utensils later—and after a side-by-side wok/saucepan multitasking experience best described as harrowing—I’d cooked the best version of the dish that I’d ever eaten. I’m not sure that I’d ever try it again. But it was the perfect illustration of everything that’s gained and lost by making Chinese food the P.F. Chang’s Home Menu way—which is to say, heating up frozen ingredients and blocks of frozen sauce.

Not shockingly, the frozen product peddled by P.F. Chang’s lacks the textural contrasts and depth of flavor that make the real deal the real deal. But it also takes 1/50th the effort, which is worth considering. As it turns out, of the two varieties of P.F. Chang’s Home Menu that I sampled, exactly one seemed to be an experience that might be worth repeating.

Shanghai Style Beef wasn’t that one. Although it was admirably nutrient dense (mostly a pile of beef—lots and lots and lots of pleasantly tender beef), there was little spice, zip, or flavor beyond a sort of generic onion-y sweetness. Serving it over rice helped, but doing so added an extra layer of effort to a meal marketed as a no-thought-required wonder.

General Chang’s Chicken, by contrast, had some charm to it. There was a garlic depth to the sauce, and the breaded chicken pieces were tender and not too thickly coated, cakey, or tough. Heat and sweetness were present and in balance, and the big, whole veggies had snap and charm, particularly the numerous broccoli florets. For $9, it’s comparable to what you’d get in the suburban restaurant chain that’s the namesake of these meals.

The Home Menu meals are being pitched as containing high-quality ingredients, which is always a relative proposition; when asked what, precisely, “high quality” means, here’s the answer offered by the product’s PR agent:

“The entrées include high-quality proteins like white meat chicken, shrimp and flank steak, combinations of Asian vegetables like edamame, water chestnuts, snap peas and bok choy and the hard-to-replicate sauces that people have come to expect from P.F. Chang’s.”

Make of that what you will; it’s certainly true that on the Great Celestial Sliding Scale of Chinese Food, Chang’s offerings are neither near the top nor near the bottom of the chart.

For the hell of it, I pitted General Chang’s Chicken against Chung’s All Natural General Tso Chicken and preferred Chang’s. Chung’s came in a cute plastic container designed to look like a takeout box but was overly sweet and featured minced pieces of vegetables and rice mixed in with everything else; this made for an unappetizing slurry.

Verdict: It’s not a trip to Tianjin or Irene Kuo’s kitchen, but for the lazy fan of Chinese food, the P.F. Chang’s line holds some promise.

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