Serious Eats: Drinks
Will Gordon Tries P.F. Chang's New Winter Cocktails
I used to work at a cooking magazine where Kenji and people like him—to the extent that there are people like him—messed around in the kitchen all day, putting vodka into pie dough and extra steps into everything else, while I tried valiantly to gain three pounds a week and stay out of the way. I didn't have much to contribute to the recipe-development process, so I mostly just talked to the interns while I waited for the cooks to get bored enough to write something.
My favorite intern was a spunky late-teen named Tuesday. Her parents called her Abbey, but all the interns' parents called them that, so we had to ID them by the days they worked. Tuesday grew up to become Serious Eats Washington correspondent Abbey Becker, incidentally, and is currently dating much more successfully than the following story would have you believe.
Tuesday was great and she knew it, which burdened her with a level of self-respect that made it difficult to find common romantic cause with age-appropriate boys. She refused to settle for "Hey, wanna come over and watch me and my stoner roommates play video games all night and then maybe make out before the pizza guy gets here, oh yeah, can I borrow $12?" or "What are you doing Friday? My idiot buddy says he can probably sneak us into the movies. Bring a big purse and a hot friend."
I generally supported this fickleness, and I can only recall one time when I took the gentleboy caller's side. One nice guy wanted to take her P.F. Chang's, and she scoffed at the notion as only a late-teen cooking magazine intern could. Our precious flower was too delicate of palate and refined of sensibility to eat at a chain restaurant, which would have been a reasonable position to take if she'd been old enough to drink or had an income, but given the circumstances I thought P.F. Chang's was a pretty good date.
My defense of Chang's was based on nothing more than its reputation, however, as I'd never actually been. But I knew it was reported to be a cut above the average chain and therefore a perfectly suitable place for two pretty little things to get acquainted over lettuce wraps. I can't remember if Tuesday ever went on that date, but I do know that I never got around to trying P.F. Chang's myself until I headed in Saturday afternoon to investigate their two new winter cocktails.
As soon as I sat down at the bar I noticed some signs that P.F. Chang's takes their cocktail operation more seriously than might be expected: The house whiskey is Evan Williams, which I respect as the go-to bourbon of many a discerning bottom-shelfer. And maybe I'm a sucker for being impressed by such a triviality, but I liked that the drink prices are rendered in whole dollar amounts. In my experience a $10 drink is almost always better than a $9.95 drink. I had a good feeling about this liquid lunch.
In a Tuesday-validating twist, my usual drinking partner and head sangria consultant opted out of this mission, so you'll have to settle for my less expert opinion of the Holiday Sangria ($8). For starters, it's red, which is both festive and appropriate. White sangria is too often based on the sort of limp Pinot Grigio that just disappears underneath a mountain of fruit and a shot of brandy.
My bartender told me that the P.F. Chang's sangria is primarily merlot spiked with orange vodka, and it took me just one sip to mourn the missing brandy. The over-the-top vanilla from the wine crashed into the sweet orange from the vodka to produce a dumbed-down Creamsicle effect that was crying out for spice; ginger would have been perfect and nutmeg would have sufficed. For all intents this was just a glass of over-oaked merlot fortified with a half-shot of orange vodka. It was garnished with two slices of orange and one Tillen Farms Bada Bing Cherry, a good enough little berry that really belongs in an amaretto sour but did no harm here.
The barman said the Whiskey Punch ($10) was Bulleit rye and a blend of "our juices," which seemed to be orange-tinted sour mix with a small suggestion of pineapple or something similarly tropical and maybe a bit of ginger. Bulleit Rye in a chain restaurant punch! Take that, snobby interns and absentee drinking partners.
Bulleit augments the rye with just a tiny bit of barley (5 percent) to produce a supersmooth, sweet, and spicy 90-proof whiskey that blended perfectly with the citrus-stuffed, lightly spiced Chang juice. The Whiskey Punch was a smidge sweeter than ideal, suggesting that this time the Bada Bing cherry might have been overkill: It complements the rye's inherent cherry character, but at too sweet a cost. But that small imperfection isn't enough to prevent me from recommending your next trip to the mall include at least two servings of P.F. Chang's Whiskey Punch.