Dining Deals

Cheap Eats: Pei Wei's $5 Lunch Menu Is Actually a Pretty Good Deal

Pei Wei's $5 lunch items at a glance.
Pei Wei's $5 lunch items at a glance. Photo by Gwendolyn Knapp
I know what you're thinking. Pei Wei? Really?  But hear me out. We live in an age when its not uncommon to drop $20 on a sandwich and a drink (and tip) at lunch. It's difficult to even make it out of a drive-thru without spending at least $7 and change.

Enter PF Chang's wok-fired Pan-Asian mega chain Pei Wei. There's 20 locations in the greater Houston area, and they're all offering a new $5 lunch menu, running right now until August 8 (and potentially longer).

Now, being the starving, bleary-eyed office folk that we generally are over here at the Houston Press, we thought we'd carve out a few minutes to escape our work lair and see how the $5 menu items stack up against the best (and pretty much only comparable) lunch that  $5 can get you in Houston: A banh mi and can of soda from the Midtown establishment of your choice.

We visited the Waugh location and took the entire menu to go. The restaurant was super clean and the line was moving quickly considering it was just about noon. The experience as a whole was actually quite pleasant.

Just FYI, this $5 Pei Wei lunch special hasn't launched in other cities yet.  It's exclusive to Houston, at first anyway. We're basically the guinea pig, which is pretty cool, unless we end up dying and they try to flush us down the toilet or something.  Hasn't happened yet.

Here's what the Pei Wei press release promises for $5. The dishes all come with your choice of chicken or vegetarian, with white or brown rice (stir-fried rice costs a $1).
  • Sweet & Sour – pineapple, red bell peppers, snap peas and fresh ginger, wok-tossed in Pei Wei’s classic sweet and sour sauce.
  • Korean Spicy – red bell peppers, bean sprouts and scallions, wok-fired in a sweet and spicy Korean bulgogi sauce.
  • Thai Dynamite – Thai basil, scallions, red bell peppers and julienne carrots, wok-fired in a Sriracha chile soy sauce and topped with a fresh lime wedge.
  • Dan Dan Noodles – white meat chicken, garlic and scallions, wok-seared in a chile soy sauce, served over steamed noodles and finished with steamed bean sprouts and fresh julienne cucumbers.
  • Mango California Roll (8 pc) – seafood salad, mango, cucumbers and scallions, all hand-rolled in premium sushi rice and topped with toasted sesame seeds.
Here's what we really got:

click to enlarge Not a transformative experience, but not Lean Cuisine either. - PHOTO BY GWENDOLYN KNAPP
Not a transformative experience, but not Lean Cuisine either.
Photo by Gwendolyn Knapp
Sweet and sour chicken: It does in fact live up to its description with bits of pineapple, pepper and snap peas in the dish and a little kick from the ginger. The sauce isn't too insidiously sweet like the electric-orange death that bedraggles most Chinese carryout versions. The bird is breaded and fried and isn't meant to blow your mind or anything. Probably not the healthiest choice, but a reliable one with a bit of heat.

click to enlarge Thai Dynamite, no longer just a great stripper name. - PHOTO BY GWENDOLYN KNAPP
Thai Dynamite, no longer just a great stripper name.
Photo by Gwendolyn Knapp
Thai Dynamite chicken: This was the first dish to disappear back at the office, and really the best overall. The addition of fresh lime wedges is a really great touch, bringing brightness to the spicy and mildly sweet sauce. It's a good deal for $5, with tender bits of fried chicken and a large helping of scallions, peppers and carrots.

click to enlarge Stare not into the face of Dan Dan. - PHOTO BY GWENDOLYN KNAPP
Stare not into the face of Dan Dan.
Photo by Gwendolyn Knapp
Dan Dan Noodles: Mildly terrifying to look at, and nowhere near as delicious as you're going to find out on Bellaire, but considering the amount of noodles and chicken (though a little sad and crumbly), with an additional fresh topping of cucumbers and bean sprouts, it certainly beats a Lean Cuisine. The garlicky chile soy sauce has a little bit of spice and is a nice break from the menu's other, sweeter dishes.

click to enlarge Korean spicy chicken is indeed spicy, but it's also kind of strange. - PHOTO BY GWENDOLYN KNAPP
Korean spicy chicken is indeed spicy, but it's also kind of strange.
Photo by Gwendolyn Knapp
Korean spicy chicken: The Korean-inspired bulgogi sauce does pack a bit of heat, but it's kind of strange served over chicken. Not the best Pei Wei has to offer, but not entirely sucky.

click to enlarge California is a state of mind, bro. - PHOTO BY GWENDOLYN KNAPP
California is a state of mind, bro.
Photo by Gwendolyn Knapp
Mango California Roll: If you're the type who already downs grocery-store sushi when nobody's looking, this mango California roll will be right up your alley. The "seafood salad" is likely krab, but it tastes pretty fresh and summery alongside sweet mango and cucumber. This is probably not sufficient as its own lunchtime meal, unless you're trying to drop down a weight class, but it does make for acceptable snacking.

Catch the $5 menu at all Houston Pei Wei locations from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. daily.
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Gwendolyn Knapp is the food editor at the Houston Press. A sixth-generation Floridian, she is still torn as to whether she likes smoked fish dip or queso better.