Thursday, March 19, 2009

Chain Encounters

It’s been our travel custom to try and avoid chain restaurants. Many chains serve good food at good prices, but our thinking is why eat the same food when we’re away that we can eat at home. Still, chains have their place, and today I am writing about two--one very local and one somewhat national.

After viewing the Chihuly exhibit we wanted food fast (not fast food), and knowing that many Phoenix restaurants close at 9:00 p.m., our choices were limited. Pei Wei Asian Diner is located in cousin Raina’s (left) neighborhood and seemed like a good choice. Pei Wei is the semi-national chain with restaurants in nearly half the states--mainly in the south and southwest. Owned by P.F. Chang’s, Pei Wei has its headquarters in neighboring Scottsdale, AZ, and the “diners” serve made-to-order food that encompasses the foods of China, Japan, Korea, Vietnam, and Thailand. Most dishes come in a basic form and you select your choice of protein – chicken, beef, shrimp, vegetables, tofu, or vegetables with tofu.

The four of us (Raina, Jesse, Chuck, and I) ate through three of the five countries. Chuck had the Dan Dan Noodles with Chicken (Sichuan China); I had the Spicy Korean Beef; and Raina and Jesse shared an order of Chicken Pad Thai and pot stickers (Thailand and China).

The Dan Dan Noodles, a traditional Chinese street food, was a mixture of chicken, egg noodles, scallions, bean sprouts, and cucumber in a spicy chili, garlic, and soy sauce.

My Korean Beef contained very tender slices of beef mixed with long beans, white mushrooms, carrot, and onions in a sauce of hot pepper sauce, garlic, chili pepper paste, and soy. The Korean Beef was served with a side of white rice (my choice over the fried rice).

And the Pad Thai – the spiciest of the three – included five spice tofu, chicken, scallion, egg, crushed peanuts, lime, and cilantro and was served over rice noodles.

I must admit to being pleasantly surprised. I avoid the massive Chinese Buffets that seem to be everywhere today because the food is “dumbed” down to American taste. Not the case here. In fact, Jesse (left) mentioned that his Pad Thai was almost too spicy. (I had a generous taste and agreed that it was in fact very spicy but I’m not sure I thought it too spicy.) Only the pot stickers, with a thick almost baked covering but delicious garlicky pork filling, seemed less than authentic. And, on the condiment table were containers of chili paste in case you feel more heat is warranted. None of us added additional chili.

We give Pei Wei a 4.0 Addie rating. I didn’t feel transported to the Orient but enjoyed the food. In fact, if we encounter other Pei Wei’s on our travels, I would be tempted to eat there when the craving for Chinese hits rather than taking a chance on unknown Chinese food.

We had two objectives the other day--hit the Outlets at Anthem (two exits north of our campground) and go to lunch. A quick “Google” of restaurants in Anthem (a Del Webb planned community) showed the usual list of chain fast food restaurants, upscale bistros, and Streets of New York Pizza. With no more information than the restaurant’s address, off for pizza we went. Seeing the restaurant virtually empty at 1:00 p.m. was a cause for concern. But we were there and there we would eat.

In addition to pizza, the menu includes soups and salads, subs, calzones, and pasta. Pizzas come in “specialty” form or the “design-your-own” from a fairly extensive list of ingredients. The crust comes traditional or thin. And the pizzas here are baked in a traditional pizza oven and not a wood fired brick oven.

We stayed with the tried and true and ordered one fourteen-inch thin crust sausage and, from the specialty list, one ten-inch thin crust Margherita. We did ask that they hold the pecorino Romano and the “splash” of balsamic vinegar on the special Margherita. And, on the sausage, we asked that they go light on the tomato sauce.

So what, after our special requests, arrived on our table? Two very good pizzas. The sausage was lightly sauce, had good fennel sausage served in “clumps” rather than slices and came on a thin and very crisp crust. The problem was too much stringy mozzarella.

The Margherita was the style of tomato, cheese, basil pizza that we both relish. Rather than tomato sauce, the thin crisp crust was brushed with olive oil and topped with sliced roma tomatoes, fresh garlic, and fresh basil. Again, the problem was too much cheese.

I came home and did a little more investigating. Streets of New York was founded by a Phoenix transplant from New Jersey. They now have over twenty outlets in “The Valley” and two more in Prescott and have just opened a restaurant in Las Vegas. Streets of New York is a fifteen-time winner of the Phoenix New Times' “Best Pizza” designation.

I rate Streets of New York 4.0 Addies. And you don’t have a three-hour wait. If they would scrap the stringy mozzarella and use fresh instead, we might be looking at 4.5 Addie territory.

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