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On the Chang Gang

Sometimes it works; other times it doesn't. As far as appetizers are concerned, there is nothing particularly inspiring about the harvest spring rolls; the only difference between these and regular egg rolls is the thin pancake-like covering that envelops some finely sliced vegetables. Neatly folded into small rounded pockets, they're lightly fried to a golden brown and served with a tart sweet and sour dipping sauce. Another offering is four small crescent-shaped vegetarian dumplings in a bamboo steamer. Unfortunately I, too, was steamed when I got my order, because the dumplings weren't cooked. The dough was barely more than warm, although the filling of julienne Chinese vegetables did seem done.

There are, however, two noteworthy appetizers. The Cantonese pork medallions appear on the plate in a crescent shape and boasting a resplendent red color reminiscent of Peking duck. Served with a dark hoisin sauce, the pork has no fat anywhere on it, yet remains moist. Chang's chicken in soothing lettuce wrap is even more pleasing; it comes close to being the best thing the restaurant has to offer. It begins with a ceremonial tableside preparation of a special sauce -- a mixture of hot Chinese mustard, chili oil, rice vinegar and pot sticker sauce that makes the dish particularly assertive. The server is a great help in demonstrating the correct way to assemble the appetizer. A large leaf of iceberg lettuce is laid on your plate, followed by scoops of a minced chicken, vegetable and rice noodle mix. This is topped off with a teaspoon of the sauce. The whole thing is then rolled together in preparation for consumption. This is not an easy dish to eat, particularly since after the first bite everything tends to fall apart, but it's more than worth the trouble. The lettuce wrap (something a Chinese friend tells me he's seen at home, but never in a restaurant) is truly revelatory.

The entrees are similarly mixed. Much of the menu is no worse, if also no better, than many other mid-priced Chinese places. The dandan noodles -- a bowl of egg noodles topped with a sauce of ground chicken breast, garlic and chili -- are fine and filling, while the mu shu pork, with its standard thin pancake filled with a mixture of minced pork then Chinese mushrooms, Chinese cabbage and chives, was pleasantly done. The vegetables were crisp, although the mushrooms were somewhat rubbery. This isn't a highly flavored dish, but one to be enjoyed because of its delicacy.

The kung pao chicken started out strongly, its medallions of chicken so tender they fell in two under the pressure of a lone chopstick. The spicy chili peppers gave the dish a nice heat level, though the clear sauce in which they are served was so greasy that I found them impossible to pick up with chopsticks. But my first taste lead me to believe that something was awry in the kitchen; the burst of salt almost burnt my tongue. This heavy-handedness with the salt shaker was repeated in the chicken with black bean sauce, in which stir-fried chunks of white chicken are juxtaposed with a dark black bean sauce. I'm not sensitive to salt, but both these dishes were hard to take. Asked if the salt level was unusual, the waitress kindly informed me that all Chinese food tends to be salty.

Thanks for the tip. Wonder if the cooks along Bellaire know about that? But maybe, if the message I received in my fortune cookie is prophetic, it doesn't matter. It read: "You will enjoy much success." For P.F. Chang's, that seems a pretty good bet.

P.F. Chang's China Bistro, 4094 Westheimer, 627-7220.

P.F. Chang's China Bistro:
harvest spring rolls, $3.95; Cantonese pork medallions, $4.95; vegetarian dumplings, $4.95; Chang's chicken in soothing lettuce wrap, $5.75; kung pao chicken, $9.95; chicken with black bean sauce, $10.50; mu shu pork, $7.95.

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