Chinese take out. Back lit menus, vats of rice, fried dumplings, MSG. It’s so, so bad, and sometimes, when you’re in the right mood, so, so good.
But what if there was a restaurant that whipped up sweet and sour chicken and crab Rangoon that didn’t leave you with a raging food hangover? What if that place offered made to order Asian fare that didn’t come swimming in grease and still cost no more than the take out joint down the street? The folks behind the now famous P.F. Chang’s chain are betting this kind of restaurant would do pretty well. And after my first meal from Pei Wei Asian Diner I’m inclined to agree with them.
Pei Wei, which opened last week on Vanderbilt Beach Road, is a new kind of Chinese take out stop. It’s clean, corporate and not a bit sketchy. The interior, done in red and black, is sleek and sort of plastic-y. Although it’s called an Asian diner, Pei Wei looks more like an Asian Boston Market or Moe’s.
The menu also reads like a fast food stop from the Far East. Dishes range all over the Asian map from Japanese soba noodle bowls to pad Thai to spicy Korean stir-fry and Mandarin Kung pao with rice. The concise list of fare is broken down into a few categories including “first tastes,” “noodle and rice bowls” and “signature dishes,” the latter two available with your choice of protein from beef, chicken, pork, tofu, shrimps or scallops. Prices are firmly rooted in the under $10 range, it’d be hard to go over $15 per person here.
I pick up the phone a rainy Monday evening and put in a call to Pei Wei ordering up an ample selection of Asian goodies: a cup of wonton soup ($2.25), an order of the Vietnamese salad rolls ($6.50), a Japanese udon noodle bowl with chicken ($6.50) and a ginger and broccoli stir-fry with tofu and vegetables ($6.95).
“20 minutes,” says the voice on the other end.
“Perfect,” I say, calculating that the drive to Pei Wei, pick up and drive home will deliver me to my couch in time to see the premiere of Heroes.
Half an hour later I’m unpacking a massive bag of neatly boxed snacks. The whole meal has cost a mere $23.53, and now I’m eager to see what that’s won me, besides a pair of free sodas that guy at the register said “were included.” Though what they were included with I have no idea.
My friend and I try the wonton soup first, an average-sized cup of mild broth packed with two wontons, chopped scallions and some slices of shitake mushroom. My friend compliments the texture and flavor that the mushrooms add, but gripes about the thin won tons. A little skimpy on the filling, he says.
We move on to the salad rolls. Cut into three wide pieces, they are wrapped in rice paper and stuffed with vermicelli noodles, shredded chicken, lettuce, carrots, mint and peanuts. The flavors mingle lightly with every crunchy bite and the texture is crisply pleasant with the snap of a slaw. On the side for dipping are peanut and sweet chili sauces. I take the last hefty piece, douse it in peanut sauce and eat it in a few gaping bites. I can’t help thinking that if the rolls were cut into smaller pieces I’d be making less of mess.
When we finally get to our entrees they are served in wide black plastic packages rather than the standard paper take out bins. The Japanese udon noodles are delicious thick snakes that mingle with caramelized onions, Napa cabbage, spinach, shitake mushrooms, scallions and white meat chicken all soaked in a tasty soy mirin sauce. It’s a hearty and filling dish, low on creativity but with plenty of flavor. Our other choice, a veggie stir-fry with broccoli, carrot slices, snap peas and tofu, comes in a sweet and tangy ginger sauce with white rice. There is plenty of smooth tofu, and the vegetables are noticeably fresh, a welcome change from many chain restaurants where stir-fry ingredients taste like they’re out of the bag instead of straight from the market.
Packaging up enough leftover for two large lunches, we finish our meal with a pair of fortune cookies.
“He who takes the last lettuce roll is the least hungry,” my fortune reads. I laugh and rub my stomach. I’m not sure if it’s the lettuce roll that did it, but I’m completely stuffed and excited for tomorrow’s Chinese lunch. With Pei Wei in the neighborhood take out Chinese is looking up.
Want to go? Pei Wei Asian Diner, 2355 Vanderbilt Beach Rd., Naples. 239.596.5515