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Chef says P.F. Chang's treats food, people with respect

| Sunday, Aug. 8, 2010

P.F. Chang's China Bistro at The Waterfront in Homestead is not your typical Chinese restaurant.

For starters, there's no all-you-can-eat buffet. For another, none of the dishes is cooked with MSG, a fact that makes owner Kiersten Wofford proud.

"We use only high-quality ingredients, and everything is made fresh every day," says Wofford, 33, who has owned this P.F. Chang's location for four years. The restaurant has been open since 2001. "All of our cooking is done in Cantonese-style woks."

What began as a single restaurant in Scottsdale, Ariz., in 1993 has mushroomed into more than 200 locations in the United States, Mexico and the United Arab Emirates. The 230-seat restaurant at The Waterfront is bathed in rich, earthy tones of terra cotta, chocolate brown and burgundy, with muted lighting. A huge mural of a hunting expedition in China hanging above the bar.

The award-winning franchise is known for serving great Chinese food that can't be found anywhere else, according to Wofford.

"Our specialty is Chang's Spicy Chicken, which is our take on General Tso's Chicken," she says. "Our Mongolian Beef is a gateway dish for people who don't like Chinese food. We have vegetarian selections and many gluten-free dishes."

A corporate chef comes up with all of the recipes that are found on a P.F. Chang's menu, no matter where the location. Another area P.F. Chang's is in Robinson. Wofford says she tells new hires that P.F. Chang's is "totally different than any restaurant you've ever worked for."

"Everything is weighed on a plate, with the aromatics on another plate," she says. "We want every dish to taste the same, whether you're in San Francisco or Pittsburgh."

Wofford's culinary partner and executive chef is Murrysville resident David Lieu, 38, who has been cooking since he was 16. His family owned two restaurants, one in Westmoreland County and the other in North Huntingdon. Lieu oversees two other chefs in the busy kitchen, where the orders come in fast and furious on any given night. They serve an average of 500 dinners every night, with more on the weekend.

"The most important quality for a chef is to be a hard worker," says Lieu, who lives with his wife, Cynthia, and their five children. "You have long hours. Everything is important — we're here because of the customers. There's no slacking off."

Lieu says that P.F. Chang's makes food the traditional way they eat in China, but with a little twist.

"The best part about working here is creating food that people actually love and enjoy," he says. "It's great when you hear 'my compliments to the chef.' "

P.F. Chang's menu has several components: starters, soups and salads, side dishes, lunch bowls, noodles/rice, vegetarian, gluten-free, beef, chicken/duck, seafood, pork/lamb, kid's menu and dessert.

Starters include vegetarian lettuce wraps, crab wontons, Sichuan chicken flatbread, dumplings and seared ahi tuna. The popular chicken category features Kung Pao chicken, mandarin chicken, ground chicken and eggplant, chicken with black bean sauce, and Cantonese-style duck with sweet soy plum sauce.

Seafood shines at the restaurant, with entrees such as lemongrass prawns with garlic noodles; broiled sea bass marinated in oolong tea; shrimp with lobster sauce; and salmon steamed with ginger. But meat eaters love the spicy wok-charred beef with mushrooms and sweet peppers; or the Sichuan-style beef with fresh orange peel and chilies. They even serve a wok-seared lamb with green onions, sesame and cilantro.

"We get our ingredients from Reinhart Foods," Lieu says. "They deliver, and they contract through Asian supermarkets. We also get produce from Paragon Produce."

Lieu and Wofford met several years ago, when they were both working at the Original Fish Market, Downtown — he as a chef, and she as the manager. They both left that restaurant to come to P.F. Chang's, and say they enjoy the partnership.

Wofford says that the best part of the business is the people she works with. There are 150 employees at P.F. Chang's.

"We have good employee retention here," Wofford says. "There's very little turnover."

Lieu attributes that to working by the golden rule.

"You need to treat everyone with respect,," he says, "and treat the staff the way you want to be treated."

Spicy Salt and Pepper Prawns

This hot dish is a delightful blend of spices and shrimp, wok-fried in soybean oil and served with either brown or white rice.

Owner Kiersten Wofford suggests serving this delicious entree with a good riesling or sauvignon blanc.

For the shrimp marinade:

2 tablespoons egg whites

1 tablespoon cornstarch

1/8 teaspoon salt

1/8 teaspoon white pepper

2 tablespoons soybean oil or vegetable oil

1 pound peeled and deveined shrimp (16/20), cleaned and dried thoroughly

For the sweet mustard dipping sauce:

1 tablespoon hot mustard sauce

1 tablespoon rice vinegar

1 tablespoon soy sauce

1 tablespoon sugar

2 teaspoons chopped white onions

2 teaspoons fresh minced ginger

1/2 teaspoon freshly squeezed lime juice

Spicy Salt and Pepper Prawns:

1 teaspoon soybean or vegetable oil, plus enough to cover the shrimp in a wok

8 dried red chile peppers

1/2 teaspoon minced garlic

1 tablespoon shredded green onions

1/2 tablespoon black beans

1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper

1/2 tablespoon minced ginger

1/2 teaspoon salt-and-pepper mix ( 1/4 teaspoon of each mixed together)

Cooked white or brown rice, for serving

1 wedge lime, for serving

To prepare the shrimp marinade: Combine the egg whites, cornstarch and salt and pepper in a large mixing bowl, and whisk. Stream in the oil and whisk to emulsify. Add the shrimp, and mix well until the shrimp is coated.

To prepare the sweet mustard dipping sauce: Combine all the ingredients and puree in a blender.

To prepare the Spicy Salt and Pepper Prawns: Using a wok, heat oil (enough to cover the shrimp) over high heat until the temperature reaches 350 degrees.

Add the marinated shrimp and cook for 2 minutes, or until golden brown. Remove the shrimp from the wok, drain the oil, and place the wok back on the burner.

Add 1 teaspoon of oil. When the oil is hot, add the chile peppers. Roast until a partially dark mahogany color.

Add the garlic, green onions, black beans, crushed red pepper and ginger, cooking until you bring out the flavor of the aromatics, for about 20 seconds.

Put the cooked shrimp back into the wok, sprinkle with the salt-and-pepper mix, and toss for less than a minute.

Serve with white or brown rice, the sweet mustard dipping sauce, and a lime wedge.

P.F. Chang's China Bistro

Cuisine: Traditional Chinese

Hours: 11 a.m.-10:30 p.m. Sundays-Thursdays, 11 a.m.-11:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays

Entree price range: $7.95-$22.50

Notes: Accepts major credit cards. Handicapped accessible. Full bar, with more than 40 varieties of wine by the glass. Some vegetarian entrees, and more than two dozen gluten-free dishes. Kid's menu. Four-course meal for two for $39.95. Reservations suggested.

Address: 148 West Bridge St., The Waterfront, Homestead

Details: 412-464-0640 or

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