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Do you know the way to Pei Wei? 

P.F. Chang’s fun, smaller cousin is open at Midtowne.

click to enlarge STEADY SERVICE: Not fast food.
  • STEADY SERVICE: Not fast food.
Less than 24 hours after eating dinner at Pei Wei Asian Diner last week, its first week in business in the new Midtowne shopping center off Markham and University, we were back again to sample more Asian delights.

We’re confident that if you enjoy a contemporary spin on Asian food — such as that found at P.F. Chang’s Chinese Bistro — you’ll be making Pei Wei a regular, if not daily, stop yourself.

Pei Wei is a chain off-shoot of P.F. Chang’s, a Scottsdale, Ariz.-based chain. It’s one of those spots you stumble into in a larger metropolitan market and think, “I wish Little Rock had one of these.”

Well, now it does. It took long enough in our opinion to get a P.F. Chang’s. Pei Wei is diner-style P.F. Chang’s (it’s pronounced “pay-way,” but we suspect some may call it “pee-wee,” and if that helps you better remember it as a pee-wee P.F. Chang’s, so be it). The place seats about 75. Many of the regular items we pick at P.F. Changs — the Dan Dan noodles, the crispy honey-seared shrimp, the potstickers, the lettuce wraps — are available here.

There is plenty from which to choose on the menu: appetizers such as edamame, wontons and soups; salads; noodle and rice bowls; Pei Wei’s “signature” dishes, plus three kid’s dishes. The menu points out several items (about half) that are deemed spicy dishes — but from tasting two of them, don’t be scared off; there’s kick and flavor, but it’s not reach-for-the-water-pitcher overpowering to us. Various veggie selections are available.

We hesitate to call it fast food because the place is so trendy and cool looking, and the waitstaff, all dressed in black, willingly helps with your every need. But you order everything from the counter, and pick up the silverware and drinks (from soft drinks to chai tea to hot water for infusing the specialty teas) and even the fortune cookies by the yellow-brick back wall. Tables are already set with extra plates, high-quality paper napkins and a container loaded with chopsticks and a clip to display the number the cashier’s already given you. And in moments your food is out. Watch it; that first bite might be hotter than you expect. The food comes right off a grill or fry pans being bustled about in an open kitchen by up to nine chefs.

Our potstickers (orders of 4 or 8 are available), which are fried wontons with pork, weren’t the soft dumpling variety, but sufficed. We will know next time to let them sit a minute before diving in. The edamame (salted soybeans in the pod) were steamed just right, with extra salt served on the side.

Our pad thai ($6.50) came with chicken and beef (choices are optional; shrimp or scallops cost an additional $1) and soaked in a Thai sweet and sour sauce. It was delivered in a large bowl with fresh lime and cilantro. Our pad-thai-loving companion approved.

The Thai-inspired Asian coconut curry shrimp ($9) was a massive serving with more than a dozen nice-sized tender shrimp and plenty of rich, spicy green curry sauce, red pepper, long beans and onion served over rice. We’d make this our regular order at Pei Wei if we weren’t so eager to sample more of the menu.

Pei Wei has an assortment of beers and wines, and their chardonnay ($6.75) met with approval from our companion/wine snob, who paired it with her pad thai. We sampled one of the five specialty teas they sell from Revolution, a white pear that matched the spicy Asian curry.

We drove like mad for a mid-afternoon return visit to Pei Wei the next day for Dan Dan noodles (it’s always nice at the counter when you’re told “great choice,” like you know what you’re doing) with minced chicken, scallion, bean sprouts, cucumber and stringy egg noodles in a chili-seared garlic soy sauce. Pei Wei spring rolls ($3.50 for two, $6.95 for six), which are fried and brought out piping hot, were a perfect starter.

Pei Wei has “Take Away” (but shouldn’t that be Take A-Wei?) with its own door and cashier. We suspect we’re going to be frequenting that.

Pei Wei was reasonably priced (just over $30 for dinner, including a glass of wine, two appetizers and two large entrees), and its atmosphere, with contemporary music lightly pumping out of the speaker system, was stylish. Waitstaff was friendly as could be.

Brinker knows how to create successful restaurant chains, and Pei Wei is one of them. Ours is next to trendy stores in a nice new open-air shopping center.

Pei Wei Asian Diner

Midtowne Shopping Center
Markham and University Ave.
280-9423

Quick bite
The servings are ample enough to be shared. Take a group, pick a few and pass them around for the full sampling of Asian cooking.

Hours
10 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily.

Other information
Inexpensive to moderate prices. Credit cards accepted. Beer and wine available.

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