The first time I heard of chef Peter Chang was on an episode of the Travel Channel’s Bizarre Foods America with Andrew Zimmern, and I have had it on my restaurant bucket list ever since. Chef Peter Chang specializes in authentic Szechuan cuisine and is a James Beard finalist as well as a former chef of the Chinese Embassy in Washington, D.C. Imagine my surprise when I saw that a “Peter Chang” had opened in Katy, Texas. Could I finally taste the greatness of Chang’s award-winning cuisine in my own neighborhood?
After an online search to see if this was a real Peter Chang restaurant, it was still unclear. In Eric Sandler’s article in CultureMap, the owner of the Peter Chang in Katy, Stone Shi, stated that Chang was not involved in his restaurant but that all the chefs and the menu are from real Peter Chang locations. Was this another “Mochi Sushi” situation, in which former Kata Robata chefs opened their own restaurant in Sugar Land using exactly the same menu?
From my initial impression, it seems that every attempt is being made to connect this restaurant to the real Peter Chang. In its storefront signage, a similar font is used for the “Peter Chang,” the only difference being the inclusion of three peppers. The first question I asked my server was, “Is this Peter Chang associated with the original Peter Chang from Arlington, Virginia?” She stated that the owner was personal friends with chef Peter Chang and that his restaurant employed chefs who had previously worked at original Peter Chang locations. A Washington Post quote referring to chef Peter Chang is included at the top of the menu, and the menu seems to be the same as the real Peter Chang menu almost word for word.
For appetizers, I tried the “Pan-Fried Pork Dumpling” and the “Szechuan Bang Bang Shrimp.” I wanted to compare the dumplings to others that I have had, and, being Asian, I have had my fair share. I realize that’s playing to stereotype, but that does not make it any less true. I ordered the shrimp at the suggestion of the waitress, who was informative and seemed knowledgeable about the menu. To my surprise, both the dumplings and the shrimp were disappointing. Did I overhype the restaurant in my mind, or was this a poor copycat of the original? The presentation of the shrimp was mildly appealing, but the flavor reminded me — if just for a second — of those samples they pass out at mall food courts. Not a terrible dish, and there was a nice sweetness with a hint of spice to it, but quite comparable to any sesame shrimp dish you've had before.
The dumplings were even worse. The dumpling casing was chewy and did not have any crisp to it despite being pan-fried. The pork meat inside was very compact and seemed more like the frozen variety than something made fresh. Perhaps it was poor execution on the part of the cooks that day, but the texture and flavor of the pork dumplings were unsatisfying.
For entrées, I had the “Szechuan Double-Cooked Beef” and the “Bamboo Flounder Fish.” The beef was very tender thanks to the cooking process, in which it was simmered and fried, but it could have used a bit more flavor. I prefer beef that has a strong enough flavor that it does not get lost when eaten with rice. The savior of my meal was the flounder. According to the menu, the “Bamboo Flounder Fish” is the “Winning dish figured at the Top 50 Newest Restaurants in America,” and it was perfectly executed by the cooks. The first bite of the batter on the fish literally melted in my mouth. And for $11.99, I felt as if I had cheated the restaurant and would gladly pay more. The presentation for such an affordable dish was pleasantly surprising and mimics the presentation used by chef Peter Chang. The spices were not overpowering, and had a subtle kick that lingered a bit.
The interior decor of the restaurant left a lot to be desired. Odd tangerine patterns were mixed in with blue and purple wallpaper. If Punky Brewster designed a Chinese restaurant, this might be it. The servers were polite, enthusiastic and ready to recommend several dishes, but some steps in service were severely lacking. This may have been a result of the fact that there were only two servers to handle the entire restaurant during lunch. I did not see my server after entrées were delivered, at least not until I flagged her down (which I had to do) to get my check. Management did visit every table and several staff members were available for drink refills and table bussing, so the restaurant still provided adequate service overall, especially for an Asian restaurant. The extra rice provided when the server boxes your food up is a nice touch as well.
If you expect the Katy version of Peter Chang to be an extension of chef Peter Chang’s restaurant empire, you will be disappointed. But if you take a step back and appreciate the attempt at elevated, albeit copied, Szechuan cuisine, then you might enjoy the experience. It certainly is not worse than many of the existing Chinese restaurants in the area and has the potential to be better considering it has been open for only three weeks. I would definitely come back just for the flounder, which, at $11.99, is an absolute steal.
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