Pei Wei Asian Diner isn't "east of usual"-- but it's north of expectations
I have yet to find my go-to Chinese restaurant, chain or otherwise, in Denver. And that's not from lack of trying. I have favorite Japanese/sushi, Vietnamese and Thai spots all over town, but the best I have scrounged up for moderately priced, decent Chinese is effin' Panda Express. And, yes, I'm fully aware of how sad that is. So I was stoked to get my Pei Wei on, since I figured that even if the place didn't serve great, cheap Chinese food, it would serve decent-enough stuff to serve as a satisfactory stopgap.
J. Wohletz The very deviled crab wontons at Pei Wei.
Pei Wei's brand slogan is "east of usual," so I fully expected my Western expectations to be met.
I stopped by the Pei Wei Asian Diner in Lowry, which has free parking. Both the outside and the interior of the store had the clean, polished, sleek look that I love about fast-casual restaurants. Pei Wei is a fast-cash spinoff from P.F. Chang's China Bistro that got its start in 2001; today there are more than 150 locations in over fifteen states, as well as Mexico and Kuwait. In 2003, Pei Wei was named Nation's Restaurant News's Hot Concept.
J. Wohletz This is one neat, clean and organized condiment station.
I had gotten a couple of takeout orders from a New Mexico Pei Wei back in 2001, when a new store opened up the street from me, but I didn't remember much about the food, so the Lowry Pei Wei was a relatively clean slate. Pei Wei has a fairly simple menu -- protein, veg, rice or noodles, with a small selection of bottled beer and wine -- and everything on the menu is a fusion of Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese and Thai, some dishes leaning more toward one than the others. I busted it all up by first ordering a large order of crab wontons ($4.95) -- just to spite every butt-burper who whines and bitches about how un-authentic they are. These light, crispy stars with their warm, soft, cream-cheesy, crabby, oniony middles are Americanized, bastardized, misunderstood and absolutely delicious.
I also ordered a large hot & sour soup ($4.95), the Thai-ish caramel chicken ($8.35) and the featured black-pepper chicken ($8.35) with steamed rice, a bottle of Tsingtao ($4) and a single-serve Revolution Dragon Eye Oolong tea ($1.95).
J. Wohletz It's hot, it's sour, it needs more chunks of goodies.
The tea was a single bag in a tiny box, displayed in a larger wood display box. I'd had Revolution's Earl Grey lavender and pear-infused white teas and loved them, so chances were this one would be just as satisfying -- if overpriced. I opened the box, steeped, waited and sipped: The Dragon Eye was a blend of whole oolong leaves, safflower and apricot, which seemed to be the dominant aroma and flavor. Unfortunately, oolong's mild-to-medium natural flavor strength can get lost when mixed with other things, and while either the apricot or the safflower would have sufficed, I didn't need both.
Was the single-serving box of tea worth $1.95? I don't think so, but I'm guessing that by introducing Revolution teas, with the super-special-individual-mini-box presentation, Pei Wei is appealing to people who aren't hard-core tea drinkers -- and I can't fault Pei Wei for having a solid marketing strategy.