Editor's note: You may know John M. Edwards from his fast food reviews here at Serious Eats. We figured that if he's willing to try a Denny's Fried Cheese Melt, he's pretty much up for anything involving chain restaurants...even tasting his way through their signature cocktails. Here he is with another edition of Cheap Buzz! Take it away, John. --The Mgmt.
PF Chang's is an unabashed celebration of Americanized Chinese food. The inspiration for these dishes comes from Middle-America strip malls, not Flushing, Queens, or Shanghai. And it's a weird experience: the giant horses outside the doors frighten children; your server is almost always Caucasian; some locations serve french fries.
So it comes as no surprise that the cocktails are prepared for the American palate. Most, like the Orange Peel Manhattan or the Plum Collins, try to incorporate some vaguely Asian element into a mostly American invention. In some cases, these drinks are interesting, even enjoyable renditions of classic cocktails. In others, they're as sugary their General Tso's Chicken.
Everybody in my party liked the Orange Peel Manhattan, a mix of Woodford Reserve Bourbon, blood orange bitters, and sweet vermouth. The bourbon tasted smooth, the vermouth was apportioned properly, and the orange flavor really came through. It was slightly—but not undrinkably—too sweet. When I'm putting back a Manhattan, something about me likes to feel like Don Draper, swilling a man's glass of hooch; this wasn't quite it.
Next up, the Chinese 88 Martini, is a renamed French 75. Plymouth Dry Gin is shaken with lemon juice and topped with sparkling wine—it's crisp, citrusy, and very refreshing; they keep the gin subtle, but overall, it's more tart than sweet. (That is, until you get a taste of the sugar rim, which all but ruins the drink. If you order one, ask for it without.)
Our waiter boasted that the Organic Agave Margarita had been named among the top three most popular cocktails among chain restaurants. (How they determine that, I have no clue, but it was enough to sell me on it.) They start with Patron Silver tequila, then add organic agave nectar and lemon juice. I saw exactly why it was a top seller—it's good for a chain restaurant cocktail. The tequila is subtle, and doesn't bite; there's a good balance of booze and citrus. However, it's a fairly sweet cocktail, and I wouldn't order two.
The Tangier is Stoli Ohranj Vodka with tangerine liqueur and lemon juice. It's mellower than a Screwdriver, and has varied and interesting citrus flavors—but it's light enough that it belongs on the brunch list only.
Steer clear of the Plum Collins (a take on the Tom Collins) and the Mai Tai—both of these are in the sorority punch school of drinks.
If you're hungry, I recommend the steamed pork dumplings; even if the dough can be a bit gummy, the pork insides are plenty delicious. The ahi tuna was marred by an excessively sweet sauce; I'd skip the calamari, unless you like cafeteria fried clam sandwiches.
Overall, the cocktails mirror the food: they lean on sugar or other sweeteners to appeal and they lack the subtle complexity you'd want from a great cocktail. Still, some surprise you. Though we would have preferred our drinks a bit more grown up, I've had far worse cocktails during my Cheap Buzz odyssey.