P.F. Chang’s: Chinese Cuisine in Manila, Via the US

I had the pleasure of meeting Philip Chiang, one-half of the founding team of P.F. Chang’s, when he flew to Manila in 2012 to personally oversee the opening of its restaurant in Alabang. It was to be the first venture of the American chain into Asia, and quite understandably, a lot was riding on how it would be received in Manila.

He told me then that he was not at all afraid; in fact, he was very confident about venturing into Asia. “But you never really know,” he said. Judging from how, in less than two years, its local franchisee Global Restaurant Concepts, Inc. has already opened its second branch at Bonifacio High Street in Taguig, with another one set to open in EDSA Shangri-La Mall’s newly opened East Wing, Mr. Chiang had every reason to feel confident.

Manila was a natural choice for the US-bred chain to open. While it did serve Chinese food, it was not the one you would find in Chinatown. For one, it did not specialize in just one region of China. Sichuan and Cantonese dishes were offered side by side with those from the Yunnan province, but tweaked to become, as Ronald Olaes, P.F. Chang’s senior operations director in Manila describes it, “pan-Asian cuisine.”

Its best-selling Chicken Lettuce Wraps, for example, is based on a Cantonese dish that calls for squab. Chicken now stands for the squab, expanding the dish’s appeal to those who may not care for the gamey flavor of the bird. Its menu has an extensive gluten free selection, and it proudly declares that its food is MSG-free.

Manila offered a familiar, friendly port from which something so quintessentially East-meets-West can establish its foothold on the region from which it drew its inspiration. Here, people spoke English, there’s a labor force formally trained in the hospitality business, and there exists an affinity with anything American.

Olaes and his team trained in the US for several months to fully imbibe the P.F. Chang’s culture. As a result, you can enjoy in Manila the same P.F. Chang’s experience you might have had in the US, down to the terracotta soldiers and horses that accent the signature wood-and-stone look of every P.F. Chang’s restaurant.

Although the local menu started off with only 96 items, it has now been substantially expanded. The local franchisees, however, made sure to include the bestsellers in the opening menu. These include the Chicken Lettuce Wraps, the Dynamite Shrimp, the Mongolian Beef, and the Northern-style Spare Ribs, served dry with a five-spice rub on the side.

However, there is that extra something that makes the P.F. Chang’s Manila experience a bit different. For one, the service benefits from the famous Filipino hospitality.

For another, the local team has developed its own dishes that can be found only in Manila.

The local P.F. Chang’s offers the famous soup dumpling called xiao long bao, but instead of the traditional black vinegar and ginger sauce, Olaes and his team opted for the sweet-savory pot sticker sauce. The best way to enjoy these dumplings is to have them in the dimsum platter, which includes two pieces each of P.F. Chang’s dumplings. Make sure to have the Radish Shrimp Dumplings (shrimp and asparagus topped with a slice of daikon, cilantro and fish eggs) and the Lemongrass Chicken Dumplings (minced seasoned chicken with lemon grass, cilantro and ginger in pot sticker wraps).

The Manila team’s resourcefulness is perhaps best exemplified by their creation of the Tofu Steak, silken tofu coated in bread crumbs and deep-fried, then topped with charred bell peppers, onions and savory kung pao sauce. Olaes said the ingredients for the dish already existed in the P.F. Chang pantry, and all that was needed was the imagination to try and see what else could be done with them.

There’s also the P.F. Chang’s version of the well-loved buchi, but this time, instead of wintermelon, red bean or yam, the deep-fried rice balls are filled with chocolate. The dessert treat has met with great success among local diners, said Olaes.

The team also created their own take on the affogato, this time served with a side of thick cinnamon syrup, but what makes this dessert exceptional is the quality of the dark and fragrant espresso served with the vanilla ice cream.

Olaes emphasized that, although they are allowed to innovate, P.F. Chang’s DNA in terms of taste profile and presentation must still be present in the new dishes. There are eight original creations now in the menu of P.F. Chang’s Manila branches. The restaurant also added twelve items from the US lineup to the local menu last September, including the Tuna Tataki, diced sushi-grade tuna with cucumbers and sesame seeds seasoned with citrus soy sauce and served on top of seared ahi tuna slices and crispy wonton disks. This appetizer used to be served only during VIP nights, but was so popular it ended up eventually on the regular menu.

Tweat the Steak

Yet another example of how the Manila branch of P.F. Chang’s tweaks its menu to offer a different experience is the Grilled Angus Flank Steak. While it can be found in most branches of the US chain, Manila’s is cheaper at Php995 for a 10-ounce piece of Angus beef. The difference in cost is accounted for by the choice in cuts. Instead of the expensive New York strip, local chefs use flank, which is cheaper but approximates the quality of the more expensive cut. The steak is served with peach halves and grilled eggplant, with a steak sauce accented with soy sauce, butter, ginger and P.F. Chang’s signature sauce.