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Chain Gang: Good food, good prices at Pei Wei

The Chinese chain keeps the menu simple

EVERY GANG has a hierarchy, except maybe the Anarchy Gang, and the Chain Gang is no different.

We got grunts.

And since these grunts basically get menial tasks and attitude whenever they set foot in the clubhouse, once a year we like to do something nice for them such as take them to dinner.

Not a fancy dinner, mind you, just dinner.

So a few weeks back we unchained them from their desks, packed them into a car, and took them for a road trip up the Schuylkill to Pei Wei, a mid-price Chinese diner concept on City Avenue, from the people behind P.F. Chang's.

We've always wondered why there weren't more Chinese chains since Mexican and Italian chains seem to sprout like dandelions, so we were eager to see what Pei Wei (we say Pay-way, some say Pee-wee) had to offer.

One thing Pei Wei doesn't offer is someone to wait on you. Arriving at the restaurant you get on line in front of the menu board and place your order with a cashier - then you sit down at a numbered table. Your food is freshly cooked and brought to you, hot and relatively quickly. Service, as it was, was good.

And so was the food. The menu isn't ridiculously extensive, but so many neighborhood Chinese restaurants have too many dishes on them. Pei Wei keeps it simple - a few appetizers, a trio of salads, seven rice/noodle dishes and 11 signature dishes which can become 66 or more dishes by choosing a main ingredient from chicken, pork, shrimp, scallops, beef or vegetables and tofu.

We started with Edamame (salted soybeans) for $2.95 and this simplest of dishes was properly prepared. If they screw up the edamame, run.

We also tried the Crab Wontons ($5.95 for eight), crab and cream cheese in a fried dumplinglike crust and the Pei Wei Spring Rolls ($6.95 for six), which were crunchy vegetarian-friendly items. Said one Chain Gang grunt of the wantons, "Delicious, like honestly."

You can see why we don't let them out much.

Here are the main dishes we had, with commentary:

Sweet & Sour Shrimp with fried brown rice ($9). "Very tasty but a little heavy. For someone who doesn't eat Chinese that often though, it was a good meal. The sweet and sour dressing was delicious. The shrimp was tasty as well. The rice was OK but not great and the green peppers were good. You do get your money's worth."

Honey Ginger Shrimp and Broccoli with steamed brown rice ($9): "The portion size was good for the price. Dish was decent, a step above Chinese takeout. However, the rice tasted as though it may have sat under a heat lamp for a while, rather than fluffy and freshly steamed."

You see what we have to deal with. We pay them nothing and they're so demanding.

Honey Seared Crispy Chicken with fried brown rice ($7.50). "Let me start by saying how I really like the decor. The paintings on the wall, the lighting. It was all really calm and relaxing. Plus it seemed like they cared about giving a good impression and pleasing their customers. All the employees had a good attitude.

"My meal was really good. The fried brown rice was extremely tasty and accented the chicken very nicely. I didn't care for those little crispy white things but . . . whatever.

"And to take as many fortune cookies as you want - that was really nice too, because, come on, who doesn't like to have their fortune told? Especially when yours is . . . 'Treasure what you have.' "

Orange Peel Chicken with steamed white rice ($7.50). "Not too spicy but a nice, tangy flavor and it was good to get this dish with snap peas instead of the omnipresent broccoli. Also, although the chicken is crispy fried, it's not like some places where you get a big ball of crispy surrounding a tiny piece of chicken. Couldn't tell if the white rice was overcooked with this dish because we mixed it all together."

Not really a desserts or drinks place - how many Chinese restaurants are? - but it is nice to pick a fortune cookie until you get a fortune you agree with.

The Chain Gang's fortune for you: "You will go to Pei Wei and enjoy it."

The chain truth


Pei Wei Asian Diner, 4040 City Ave., 215-594-8230. Also, 950 Baltimore Pike in Springfield, 610-549-9060. A third area Pei Wei is opening near the Cherry Hill Wegman's this month.

Reservations: No.

Parking: Free.

Price: Dinner for four with three appetizers and four main dishes was $48.85 plus tax and drinks, if water or tea doesn't work for you.

Portions: Not big like the Great Wall, but after 30 minutes you won't be hungry again.

Overall grade: Three-and-a-quarter out of a possible four links. Solid, dependable food in a pleasant setting with a Chinese twist. *