No Wei

Even fast food shouldn't be this poorly prepared

click to enlarge MOODY NOODLES: Blazing Noodles at Pei Wei. - Valerie Troyano
Valerie Troyano
MOODY NOODLES: Blazing Noodles at Pei Wei.

In the crowded chain dining market, Asian food is seriously under-represented. The biggest national player is the upscale Pacific Rim fare of P.F. Chang's — we have one over at Westshore Plaza — but in most markets, Chang's has no corporate competition.

Honestly, considering the slew of respectable and locally owned pan-Asian joints around town, we don't need any more chain support. We've got it covered, thanks, and my money stays here in the 'hood. But Chang does have a little brother that I've been jonesing to check out: Pei Wei Asian Diner, more fast food than sit-down, or "quick casual" versus "upscale casual" in industry jargon.

The first local Pei Wei ("Pay Way") opened a few months ago in Carrollwood, with another coming to South Tampa this month. Considering the suspect quality of most neighborhood Chinese delivery and pick-up joints, I thought I could get behind a corporate menu finely tuned in the hundreds of Pei Wei locations already up and running. I guess I underestimated the soul- and cuisine-crushing effect of fast food.

I picked up a massive selection of Pei Wei's pseudo-Asian (ranging from $6.50-$9) from the Carrollwood location and brought it back to CL HQ for the editorial staff, for whom free food is a clarion call that can bring news-gathering and urban exploring to a standstill. Still, even these mooches have limits.

Pei Wei managed to distill the worst qualities of bad Asian take-out — greasy, overcooked, under-seasoned — into a 10-course lunch. In the face of this cornucopia of poorly executed food, the news staffers immediately fell back on snarky comments and name-calling. "Even free stuff shouldn't taste like that," said one.

Exceptionally bland pad Thai, lacking even the barest hint of rich fish sauce, was quickly dubbed "bad Thai." Lemon pepper chicken was praised ... for its "slick packaging." The dish itself was an innocuous blend of sautéed veggies and unseasoned chicken highlighted by a "pungent" sauce that tasted like citrusy industrial chemicals.

In Pei Wei's Asian coconut curry, chicken was covered in a soft paste that managed all of the fat and none of the flavor of coconut milk. It's the Thai equivalent of a White Castle burger — gooey and greasy and generic. Actually, at least the White Castle has some salt tossed on it.

Best of the bunch was the Pei Wei spicy chicken salad — the greens were crisp and fresh, with acceptable vinaigrette — and the Mongolian, which successfully replicated that most basic sauté of neighborhood Chinese joints, with enough salty soy to give the chicken and veggies some flavor.

Egg rolls were wrapped in rice paper and reminiscent of standard mall fare, which is a step up from much of the rest of Pei Wei's offerings. The brown rice was nicely cooked, as well.

Noodle dishes were the worst of the lot, leading one editor with a sensitive palate to set aside his "blazing" dish (missing the chicken he ordered) after the first bite and all but demand me to provide him with a replacement. I switched out his wide egg noodles dominated by tart vinegar and harsh, burned chiles with a gummy bowl of udon so innocuous that it was difficult to summon the energy to even criticize it. That shut him up.

Miso soba was laced with beef that had the "chewy rubber band" texture of the worst Chinese take-out, along with black buckwheat noodles that had been cooked almost to mush. Tough sweet-and-sour scallops, over-fried wontons stuffed with liquid cream cheese and fortune cookies with overwhelmingly upbeat slogans rounded out this mess of a meal. The newsroom's strongest critique was wordless: I had to throw away a lot of food.

For a long time, American restaurants have dumbed down the rich cuisines of a dozen Asian regions for the American palate in corner fried-rice joints and pan-Asian bistros. Pei Wei, through design or the natural lowest-common-denominator mechanics of fast food, has taken that one step further. They've simplified food that has already been bled of its best characteristics.

Read the menu and you'll see the catchwords of actual cuisine — Thai basil, cilantro, curry, miso and the like — but the flavor has been stripped out of even these powerful ingredients. It's ghost food. There's no there there.