Asian cuisine, especially of the Chinese variety, is always a tough find for the gluten free folk. Besides sushi spots, the only two Asian cuisine restaurants in the northern NJ and NYC area that I know of are Lili and Loo’s and PF Chang’s. I’ve been dining at and eating take out from PF Chang’s for a long time (while Celiac) but this is the first visit since I started Up Yours Gluten. With that said, here is my full review.
This is one of those times where you are just thankful to have safe gluten free options with this type of cuisine. The food is as good as I remember Chinese food being, at least from the options available. When you have a craving for Chinese food and have zero other options then this is a great place. I ordered the Singapore Black Pepper Chicken which consists of black pepper garlic sauce, green bell peppers, fresno peppers and onion. It was very tasty but the next time I go I’m ordering Chang’s Spicy Chicken, Mangolian Beef or the Hokkien Street Noodles. I also ordered a second entrée of Fried Rice which was delicious. No matter which way you spin it, the food is great and every dish is something that just can’t be had anywhere else.
As always, service for reviews under Up Yours Gluten are indicative of two things – the kitchen and wait staff. The kitchen is what held this score up high but the service from the wait staff left a lot to be desired on the communication front. The wait staff that I typically encounter at PF Chang’s are non-communicative when it comes to reassuring you that your gluten free needs will be met (no different this last visit). They don’t give you confidence and they don’t seem to be knowledgeable. They rely on the kitchen for that.
What makes PF Chang’s a safe destination for gluten free eaters and celiac sufferers (like myself) is that the kitchen is trained and well equipped to handle your needs. The menu has a disclaimer on the bottom that goes over all of the gluten free ingredients and sauces that will be used. It states that a separate WOK with separate utensils will be used that are designated gluten free. It also states that your dish will come out on a special bowl/plate with the PF Chang’s logo on it. For a shared kitchen, this is how to best mitigate any risk you may have and I applaud PF Chang’s for having these measures in place.
The menu options are pretty good here. The normal menu is much larger then the gluten free menu but the options that we have are all the popular ones, which I appreciate. I can come back here many times and effectively try a new dish every time. The fact that they use separate gluten free sauces, ingredients and a whole separate WOK for gluten free orders really allows for an extensive Chinese menu that you will have a hard time finding elsewhere (except at Lilli and Loo’s in NYC).
Did I Get Sick (YES)
Before I continue with my remarks about PF Chang’s I must mention the following. My stance on gluten free dining, having suffered from celiac disease for almost 8 years now, is that I will take risks. Mainly because I don’t want my social life to suffer as much as my body and mind already have for this unfortunate disease. I value being out with friends and trying to be as easy going as I can with this issue. Before celiac I was always a YES person and enjoyed every second of it. That isn’t so easy to do anymore but I hold onto it as much as I can, within reason. Eating out at a restaurant that is considered safe but actually might not be because of a shared kitchen is a risk I will take to live somewhat of a normal life. As long as the kitchen or staff can give me reasonable assurances. If they can’t or they tell me it isn’t safe to eat there then I don’t eat. Simple as that. Sometimes my assurances come from other reviewers and sometimes it comes from a good conversation with a server. Sometimes that means eating at PF Chang’s and trusting the statements on the menu even though the wait staff didn’t appear to care. That is a risk I’m willing to take most times.
With all that said, besides the obvious shared kitchen concerns, there is a potential for cross contamination if a runner takes all plates (GF and non-GF) to your table at once. As good as the kitchen is in keeping everything separate, the runner issue can happen. And it happened here even though the plates were clearly labeled. I told the waitstaff about this error and the manager offered to make me a new dish. I hadn’t eaten the food yet and didn’t see anything fall onto my plate so I declined the offer. I ate my food and ended up having stomach pains for the rest of the night. It wasn’t a severe glutening – I’ve had much worse – but a glutening nonetheless. Did it come from cross contamination with the runner carrying multiple dishes at once? Probably. Could it have come from anywhere else? Possible. Hard to tell. I can only point out what I noticed.
Will I go back to PF Chang’s though? Yes I will. This was the first time this has happened at PF Chang’s out of many visits but I trust the kitchen practices enough (and miss Chinese food enough) that I will return. I just have make sure I tell my server to bring my food out separately. I trusted they would without me telling them and sometimes that’s enough and sometimes that isn’t. Sometimes being assertive and educating the wait staff how to properly serve gluten free needs, even with strict protocols in place, is what is needed to avoid mistakes like that.
I give this place a solid 8.1, despite my minor set back. Some of you may call it a major setback. I understand that. In general though, the food is good and the options are great. If the kitchen didn’t have such strict protocols in place for ensuring gluten free safety I’d have a hard time recommending them after this. I’d have an even harder time giving them an 8.1. But it is avoidable and because of all of the positives, including the strict kitchen protocols, I recommend PF Chang’s. Just make sure you have your hawk eye out watching everything and keep sharp, as usual. You’ll enjoy the rare to find Chinese options if you do.