My husband and I were given a great gift this weekend. Knowing I'd been sick for two weeks, Girlfriend called me up and said she and our brother in law would take our kids for the evening, out for pizza and visits with the (oh-so-glamorous) older cousins so my husband and I could go out or stay home and take a nap, whatever we wanted. Since my husband has come down with this hideous thing too, we weren't sure what we'd do, but we certainly took them up on the kind offer. And the kids were thrilled, annoyed only that they couldn't travel in the minivan (no carseats there).
We debated staying home, but in the current economy, felt like we needed to throw our support to the only Indian restaurant in the county. We waited a long time for one to open and we don't want to lose it due to a pesky downturn.
We needn't have worried. We couldn't even get in the door. Plan B: I remembered some gift certificates we still hadn't used or used completely and ran back home to get them. My wonderful aunt in California, who remembers shocking amounts of details about my life despite having plenty of her own kids and grandkids to keep track of, had sent gift certificates to Pei Wei, "the Asian diner," and part of the P. F. Chang's group, when one opened near us last year. I had gotten quickie takeout from there, but this was our first meal there.
The Asian diner concept was interesting. First, when walking in the door, we were channelled in to a space along the wall where the menu was on the wall, backlit, with signs telling you to place your order before being seated. Fortunately it wasn't busy and no one was coming in behind us, so we had some time to peruse and look back and forth. There were appetizers/starters, salads, noodle and rice bowls, and "specialties."
We had fun ordering; I tried the chicken lettuce wraps and the ginger broccoli with shrimp. My husband tried the egg drop soup (a special) and the dan dan noodles. Drinks self-serve from a soda fountain. Kids' meals were limited, but we didn't have to worry about that. When we ordered and paid, the cashier told us to look for table #64, and sit there and our food would come to us. So we poured our drinks, grabbed some extra napkins for our still-soaking-wet table, and waited about 3 minutes before the soup came out. I did not try it since we are both sick and I didn't want to cross-contaminate any more than we already were. My husband liked it but wasn't crazy for it.
The highlight of my meal was the lettuce wraps. Half-spheres of iceberg lettuce came with a chicken in brown sauce over the white rice noodles with a soy-vinegar sauce, and then it was up to us to put them together. It was flavorful, if not spicy, and the contrasting temperatures (hot chicken, neutral noodles, cold lettuce) was a nice touch.
The dan dan noodles with beef came with plenty of beef medallions and cucumber on the side, which was interesting as the cool veggie cut the spicy sauce to some extent. I usually avoid foods marked as hot but I tried this and it was definitely spicy but didn't burn off my mouth.
Alas, my own entree was disappointing. Part of it was my own fault; I paid the extra $1 for fried rice on the side, and missed the fact (despite it being clearly labeled as such) that there would be diced red peppers in it, making it something I couldn't eat. I should have picked the brown or white rice, clearly. The other problem was that I had a choice of chicken, beef, shrimp, or tofu for my meal. I splurged on the shrimp, but when they arrived, I didn't love the texture. I couldn't tell if it was just that they had been defrosted less than optimally or whether they were not fully cooked. Either way, I enjoyed the broccoli but left most of the shrimp.
Over by the drinks, they had huge baskets of fortune cookies. We each grabbed one and were pleasantly surprised enough by the actual sweetness and almond flavors that we each got another. The fortune seemed to imply I was going to win Oprah's Oscars trip, but alas, no limo has shown up yet.
So, Pei Wei. Will I go back? Yes, absolutely. I want to try some of the salads, and will try again with some of the entrees, just skipping the fried rice this time. And our total for two was $30, so we still have plenty left on the gift certificates! It wasn't the best ever but I liked the idea of sort of "Asian greatest hits" (a pad thai, a version of General Tso's chicken, etc.) all in one place, along with Americanized options with Asian influence. It's not the edamame ravioli with truffle oil from Buddakan that I adore, but it's good, fast, convenient pan-Asian for nights when that's what I crave.
Edited to add: This morning, I asked my husband his take on Pei Wei. He loved our date and was happy to go, but he found the food "too gooey, too gelatinous," and while the "flavor was all right" he complained "there was not an ounce of subtlety." Well. There may have been some that Mr. Sickie missed, but the texture issues are inarguable. I'll still go, but I'll stay away from the dan dan and egg drop soups.
And thanks to Mom24, who gave me a good tip in her comment that they do make food "on demand" so I can ask for no-pepper fried rice next time. And I think I will.