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.

Pei Wei's brand slogan is "east of usual," so I fully expected my Western expectations to be met.

See also: - Second Helping P.F. Chang's China Bistro - Asian Pear Mojito P.F. Chang's - P.F. Chang's China Bistro Seven metro locations

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.

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).

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.

My food was ready in just ten minutes. I picked it up at the counter, then stopped by the almost unbelievably spotless and well-organized condiment/drink station. There were little jars of prepared hot mustard and chili sauces, bottles of chili oil and rice wine vinegar, stacks of white paper Chinese takeout boxes and a carafe of fresh-brewed Mandarin orange iced tea that ended up being a far more appealing beverage than my $4 Tsingtao, which I had apparently forgotten tasted like stale, ricey piss water and wasn't worth the time it took to pry the bottle cap off.

I ate those fried crab wontons like no one in the universe had ever claimed they were crass, insipid mall food. The filling was too bell-peppered, but had as much crab as cream cheese -- a rarity -- so the wontons had a good deviled-crab taste...while they lasted. Hot & sour soup is one of my minor litmus tests for whether Chinese restaurants can master the basics, and Pei Wei's version passed, but barely: The bamboo shoots and mushrooms were diced too fine; bigger chunks of goodies to fish for would work better. Still, the portion was generous, and I could taste the white pepper and rice-wine vinegar -- a staple at Pei Wei.

The caramel chicken looked amazing and smelled of cilantro, pineapple and hot chiles, and it came with perfect rice, steamed to fluffy. I soaked it with the house chile sauce, which had a smooth, medium-hot slow burn with equal tastes of fruity red chiles, rice-wine vinegar and sugar. The black-pepper chicken was loaded with cuts of fresh asparagus, tender-crisp bell peppers and quickly sautéed chunks of fresh tomatoes; the bite-sized chicken pieces were liberally coated with coarse-ground spicy pepper.

I went back and forth between the entrees, which were both far better than I'd anticipated. The chicken was surprising: It was tender, completely free of the tangles of connective tissue that usually come with Chinese-food chicken, easy on the breading, and each piece was covered with sauce. The caramel sauce was honeyed, perked up with rice vinegar, and the combination of juicy tropical pineapples and warm red-chile bits was surprisingly good. The black-pepper chicken was asparagus-heavy, and the smoky, wok-seared oil gave the green niblets a hearty flavor.

I was stuffed, and there was plenty left over to take home, so I had the got-my-money's-worth feeling at the end of my meal. Pei Wei's slogan is "east of usual," and while that's hardly true in this age of global tastes, this tidy, fast spot did exceed my expectations. In fact, for now it will be my go-to Chinese place -- until I locate my true home base.

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