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I first heard about P.F. Chang’s from friends who came back raving about it after eating there in Dallas. What could be so great about a chain Chinese restaurant, I wondered.
Then, when a location opened in Little Rock a few months ago, some people were waiting over two hours for a table. That kind of enthusiasm is usually reserved for ticket buyers at Bud Walton Arena when the Razorbacks have a tournament-caliber basketball team.
Amanda Busenbark, the operating partner who launched the Little Rock franchise, says their reception here is nothing new.
“No matter where we open, there is this whole anticipation,” she said. “People who don’t know about us want to know what the phenomenon is. Our reputation definitely does precede us.”
P.F. Chang’s China Bistro is based in Scottsdale, Ariz., and has 131 locations nationwide. Busenbark, who is originally from Maine, spent seven years at the Dallas location near the tollway. She’d worked her way up from server to manager when she was tapped to operate the new Little Rock venture.
“There is a lot of research involved in determining where a new store is needed,” she said. “We put them where we know they will do well and succeed.”
After studying things like traffic patterns and population trends, P.F. Chang’s decided on the building that formerly housed Regas Grill, located on Shackleford Road between Markham Street and I-630. The interior was gutted down to its brick walls and replaced with a modern Asian decor punctuated with mood lighting, dark wood furniture, slate rock walls, a Chinese mural and terracotta soldier replicas. Then the giant horses went up outside.
“The horses out front are our trademark,” Busenbark said. “It was astounding the number of people who recognized them and said, ‘We can’t wait for you to open!’ ”
She attributes the restaurant’s popularity to the consistency of its food and service. “If you get Chang’s Spicy Chicken in Boston, it’s going to be the same here,” she said.
But what makes P.F. Chang’s so different from all of the other Chinese restaurants?
“Hands down, it is our finest, freshest ingredients,” Busenbark said. “We do our wok dishes cooked to order. We’re one of the only Chinese restaurants to do traditional wok-style cooking. Our dim sum is hand-made every day, and all of our dishes are made from scratch. It’s a two-day process on our ribs.” She asserts that wok cooking is “definitely an art form” requiring special training.
Busenbark also emphasizes value. “Give me $15 and I’ll give you $30 worth of dining experience,” she claims.
Not knowing how to measure such things, it is safe to say we got our money’s worth when we sampled the fare at P.F. Chang’s. Even with a bustling lunchtime crowd just after noon on a Friday, we only waited five minutes for a seat. The menu is broad, with appetizers, soups, and entrees grouped by chicken, seafood, meat and noodle dishes. It’s all served family-style, which means portions are generous and designed to share. Prices for a main dish range from $5.95 for Garlic Noodles to $18.95 for Oolong Marinated Sea Bass, and the service and ambiance suggest an upper-range urban eatery.
In the course of noting their extensive wine and cocktail list, we admired their bar area, which is arguably the most attractive part of the restaurant and rivals some of the nicer bars in the city. Busenbark says it is catching on and getting busier in its own right, and mentions that she decided to make the entire building non-smoking. That’s notable in a city where some bars and restaurants are gearing up to fight an expected proposal to ban smoking in public places.
“It was my decision,” Busenbark said, based on her experience managing P.F. Chang’s when Dallas imposed a smoking ban. “It is a difficult transition going from smoking to non,” she said. “There was a tremendous uproar from guests. I wanted to be ahead of the game on that.”
Business does not seem to be suffering as a result. Busenbark says the restaurant is meeting expectations, although she would not share financial performance figures, citing corporate policy.
Although being a chain restaurant allows P.F. Chang’s to do things many other restaurants can’t do, like offer a gluten-free menu, there are a couple of unique elements to the Little Rock location. The restaurant here is smaller than average, for instance, because the company used an existing building rather than constructing a custom facility, as is usually done.
Ironically, the other distinguishing characteristic of the local franchise is that it is the only one that does not serve duck, because the kitchen space is too small for a duck oven. (Busenbark didn’t understand the humor in that, not knowing the enthusiasm for duck hunting in Arkansas and Stuttgart’s fame as the “rice and duck capital of the world.” But she had a quick comeback: P.F. Chang’s uses Riceland rice at all of its locations nationwide.)
The popularity of P.F. Chang’s is a good sign that Little Rock can expect more national high-end chain restaurants to land here in the coming years. On the Border, a Tex-Mex chain, preceded P.F. Chang’s arrival and met with a similarly enthusiastic reception.
“Little Rock is definitely a growing city and there is a lot of opportunity here,” Busenbark said. “I’m sure there will be competition coming to town.”
In the meantime, P.F. Chang’s can depend on a loyal clientele. During our interview, one of Busenbark’s old Dallas customers came into the restaurant for lunch. He was in Little Rock for business, and they greeted each other with a warm hug.
Which makes this as good a time as any to pass along a bit of information that Busenbark repeatedly emphasizes: P.F. Chang’s accepts reservations.