Friday, October 13, 2006

P.F.’s B.S.

Like it? 
Like a strange, unpleasant taste on the back of my tongue, a question has been haunting me persistently for some time now.

What is the P.F. Chang sauce for, anyway?

I don’t mean that rhetorically. I need assistance with this. What the hell is the sauce at P.F. Chang’s for?

Don’t look at me like you don’t know what I’m talking about! I’m not crazy! The sauce! The fucking sauce! What’s it for, for God’s sake?

An appetizing little bit of background may be in order.

In my ongoing quest to try to duplicate the social habits of a normal human being, I decided I’d take my wife to a restaurant in Boston. We have a mortgage, so “going to a restaurant” usually means pressing ourselves to the glass and smelling the food through the windows, then going home and eating cereal.

This time, though, I promised her an actual meal.

“Forks and everything?” she asked.

“Actually, I was thinking P.F. Chang’s,” I said. “We’ve never been there before and it’s cheap.”

“Save the sweet talk for after dessert,” she said.

“They have chopsticks — it’s like a fork, except instead of a stick with three sharp thingys at the end it’s a stick with just one long one.”

She politely reminded me that she is, in fact, Chinese. And soon enough we were walking up to the restaurant, which is sort of best described as “upscale-middlebrow,” meaning it’s less a restaurant and more the consumer-end arm of a nationwide food-service corporation, but it’s clean and there aren’t ketchup bottles on the table. It is also decorated with murals and objets d'art and architectural echoes of things and styles that resemble the kind of easily recognizable stuff one might find in a mythic version of China as depicted in movies by non-Chinese people. Meaning, like, a curvy horse.

We sat outside. Before we ordered, the waiter brought us this tray laden with three small bowls of different pastes and three cruets of some kind of fluids. Like an appetizer kind of deal.

“Some sauces for you,” he said, and walked away.

My wife and I stared at the tray for a while. Then at each other. Then at the tray again. Then at each other. Then she looked at me.

“What’s that for?” I said.

She shrugged.

“You’re the Chinese one here,” I said. “Don’t you know?

She peered at the cruets of fluid. “No,” she said.

“Do we put the sauce on something?”

We glanced around coolly at other tables. They all had identical trays of bowls and cruets, but nothing else. No bread or rice or other medium to transfer the sauce from the bowl to your mouth. Nothing.

“Apparently not,” she said.

I lifted the tray delicately. “Is there an instruction manual or something I missed?”

The waiter stood at another table and asked the people sitting there if they wanted him to “make your sauce for you.” They said yes, and he started pouring liquids into bowls and stirring them around like a chemistry professor — I mean, I can only guess that’s what he did, because his back was mostly turned. I tried to peek over his shoulder and my wife kicked me in the shin.

“Mixing. He’s mixing,” I said. “I think we’re supposed to mix.”

She brightened. “Yeah, that must be what we do. They’re mixing, and they look happy.”

“Great!” I said, smiling. Then I felt dark and empty inside, staring at the three bottles and three bowls. “How?”

She shrugged again.

I held up a random bottle. “Which bowl’s this one go into?”

“I honestly have no idea. Just put it in one of them and see what happens.”

The first bowl had a lump of glop. Wasabi? Isn't that Japanese? The second, a brown liquid. Unknown. The third, red paste. Most likely spicy.

“What if I mess it up? I don’t know what's in these bottles. It could cause, like, an adverse chemical reaction.”

“Just try it.”

“What if it tastes like shit, though? I'm not a saucier!”

“It’ll be fine.”

“And if it’s fine, what then? How do I eat it? There’s nothing to eat the sauce with! You can’t just eat sauce — sauce is a topping for some other food! It's garnish! It's not edible by itself! It requires a medium to be consumed with!” I handed her the bottle. “You do it.”

She took the bottle, and I immediately gestured for her to put it back. The waiter was coming by.

“He’ll know we touched them!” I whispered huskily.

“Welcome to P.F. Chang’s,” he said. “Care for something to drink?”

“Two beers,” I said.

“And I'll have a water,” my wife said.

He glanced at the tray of sauces. Then he looked at me.

“Would you like me to mix your sauces?”

That smug bastard. Could it be that easy? Sweat rolled down my temples, collecting into the corners of my awkward, forced smile. I wrung my shaking hands under the table. I felt hours tick away, heard the sound of crying babies and crumbling empires. Passing taxis stopped to hear my answer.

“Nope!” I said. “We’re fine! Everything is fine!”

He nodded and left. My wife poked me with a chopstick.

“God, why did you do that?”

“I panicked! I was ashamed!” A chill wind bit my shoulders. “And what the hell would we have done with them even if he did mix them? What do the sauces fucking do?” I breathed heavily into a paper bag I keep for such emergencies. “It's OK. We're OK. We'll know for next time: bring our own baguettes.”

The tray of unmixed sauces seemed to smirk at me, conspiratorially, from across the table. In collusion.

“Who are you, P.F. Chang, and why are you torturing me?”

We were quiet for a while, sulking. Then my wife said, “Maybe they go on the entrees.”

Rays of sunshine burst through the clouds! Even at night! I felt joyous tears sting my eyes. Yes — of course! The sauces went on our entrees! How could I have been such a fool?

The entrees came not long after that. Both came with their own sauces already on them.

“OK,” she said. “I’m stumped.”

I grabbed the bottles and dumped them randomly into the bowls. Stirred them vigorously, spattering sauce on the table, on the windows, on my shirt. Poured a brownish-yellow-green slurry on my already-sauced lamb. Scrambled it around. Then I ate grimly.

“Well?” she asked.

“Tastes like mixed-up Chinese food,” I muttered.

I still have no goddam clue what the sauces are actually for or how to eat them properly. The Internet was no help, for once. The P.F. Chang’s Web site only makes an offhand reference to the “custom sauces,” but includes no instructions for usage.

I thought about flashing my journalism creds and demanding some answers, but found this: “Unfortunately, due to the volume of requests, we’re unable to grant informational interviews or respond individually.” Crap! “The information we disclose regarding our business, marketing and advertising plans can be found in our annual reports and our quarterly filings.” Nothing sounds more delicious than a quarterly filing, but I checked. Nothing remotely sauce-related.

My wife caught me trying to tear my laptop in half with frustration and patted my head.

“Relax. Maybe you were never meant to know,” she said. “It’s one of the mysteries of the Orient.”

I poured a bowl of Raisin Bran for dinner and sighed. “I guess.”

She showed me a carton of milk. “Here,” she said, pouring it. “It goes on like this.”

4 comments:

susies said...

Love your blog. Found this on Google:


I worked at P.F. Chang's for 1 1/2 years and made the "special sauce" for the lettuce wraps for every single table I waited on there. This is what is in it.

All it is is potsticker sauce and you add your own amount of chili paste and Chinese mustard to it and mix it in.
Some people like to add a little soy sauce to add a savory flavor and others add chili oil to make it more spicy.

I always added a 1/2 tsp of chili paste and 1/2 tsp of chinese mustard to 1/4 cup of potsticker sauce. Then added just 3 shakes of soy sauce. Everyone loved my special sauce.

Enjoy, Jana

Dan Medeiros said...

Thanks, Jana. You're very nice. And that clears things up as to what the frigging condiments actually are. But my main question is, what in God's name does one use them for? I.e., Your Friendly P.F. Chang's Waiter drops off the sauces on the table and leaves you alone with them for a while, apparently so you can get to know them. Just you and the sauces. What comes next? Do you swirl a finger in there and suck on it? Tip the bowls into your mouth? How does the sauce enter you? They can spice it all the livelong day, but how's the stuff make the leap from the dish into my digestive system? It's like if you go to an Italian restaurant, and they give you a plate of delicious olive oil but no bread. Simple metaphysics. A sauce by definition requires a medium to make plate-to-mouth transference.

Something tells me this is a riddle I'm way overthinking, however.

susies said...

Hell, I don't know. I posted that clip from a website where Jana apparently answered a sauce question. I inferred that the sauce was for the lettuce wraps. That apparently you didn't order. Maybe the sauce is ONLY for the lettuce wraps and they are so magnificent that PFChang assumes that, duh, everyone will order them. And your waitstaff probably thought you were insane because you didn't. You can't go back there now.

Dan Medeiros said...

Yes, Susies, I'm a leper at the PFC now. Going back would be a quick way to ingest some disgruntled waiter's phlegm. Food wasn't bad, though.

Knowing that the sauces are likely for lettuce wraps makes me feel better, and makes a lot of sense. Thanks so much! But wait, no--I don't feel better at all. Christ, that didn't last long. So they give you complimentary sauce for food you have to order? That sucks. The least they could do is give you, like, a free lettuce wrap. To try out the sauce. As in one freebie per person. Otherwise, if you have to share one among two people, one person gets to eat a nice fresh lettuce wrap and the other person gets a half-bitten, raggedy nugget with the lettuce dented by chopstick marks. So let's say, number of people at the table = number of freebie lettuce wraps.

If they make you order the stuff the complimentary sauce goes on, then it's not complimentary--it's like giving you a beer on the house, but renting the glass costs 5 bucks.

A running joke with my wife is that one day I'm going to open a sandwich cafe. When I do, I'm going to give people bowls of tomato paste, vinegar, salt, and onion powder, and I'll mix fresh ketchup tableside. I'll sell more fries that way.

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