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Rice without the risk 

P.F. Chang's offers fail-safe Chinese

A friend once told me that he determines how good a Chinese restaurant is by how many Chinese people are eating there. If you use that as a measuring stick for P.F. Chang's quality, then it fares none too well. Weekday lunches at Chang's are filled with corporate types in blue button-ups, trim black suits, and row upon row of Nordstrom's footwear. In fact, when we showed up, there wasn't an Asian person in sight -- other than a waiter and my dining partner. It's Chinese for the safe set.

Chang's is a chain concept born in Arizona. Its triumph has been in successfully blending traditional Chinese cuisines, from Cantonese to Szechuan, all within an upscale American dining environment. So you get mounted life-size terracotta replicas of Xi'an warriors and murals depicting 12th-century China, along with an open-display kitchen (something you'll never see in a Buford Highway restaurant).

The first P.F. Chang's opened in Atlanta more than three years ago in a Dunwoody restaurant park. Now there are three (one in Alpharetta, the other in Buford at the Mall of Georgia) serving those who are not always so willing to frequent shadier parts of town that offer more authentic cuisine.

My friend's statement notwithstanding, it is possible to get some truly excellent dishes if you know what you're looking for. The soothing lettuce wraps ($6.25) are some of the best in the city. The diced and spiced chicken is served in a tasty soy-based sauce with clean, fresh lettuce cups. Wrap them up and eat them like a taco -- or if you don't want to soil the Prada, you also can knife-and-fork it.

Even better are the meaty Northern-style spare ribs ($6.25) seasoned with a dry rub. They can be paired with a barbecue sauce. But don't do it! The ketchupy taste destroys the flavor. Chang's recommends the orange peel chicken ($10.95). The combo of mild spices and citrus really works on the plate. There's also a beef variation that's great for the same reason. Both are fresh, well-seasoned interpretations of the traditional dish with just enough of a kick -- albeit toned down by the cooling orange zest.

The menu's major focus is on chicken (perhaps Chang's assumes suburban tongues are unaccustomed to less pedestrian meats). There are only two pork choices and no exotic seafood beyond scallops and calamari. We did ask the waiter to switch out the bird in the spicy ground chicken and eggplant ($8.95) with pork -- and it was done without complaint. The dish melds green onions, red pepper and other spices with Asian eggplant and strips of pork. The menu says it's spicy, but don't believe everything you read. In fact, none of the more than 10 dishes I've had at Chang's are that mouth-torching.

The two biggest disappointments are the fried rice with beef (it also comes with chicken, pork or shrimp for $6.50; $8.50 for a combo). The huge portion could feed at least six people, but it's dry and boring. The Singapore street noodles ($8.95) are a strange take on the traditional dish. The rice noodles were stir-fried with chunks of tomatoes -- something I've never seen in a Chinese dish of any region.

If anything, the most American thing about P.F. Chang's is also its best attribute: The servers are super-attentive. They share responsibilities, and anyone handy is willing to fill a water glass, deliver an entree or answer a question. It's as if Houston's decided to trade its chicken sandwich for moo goo gai pan, since it's not too risky, and you always know what to expect.

jerry.portwood@creativeloafing.com

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