Thursday, January 28, 2010

Restaurant Review: Pei Wei Asian Diner

P.F. Changs' unfussy younger brother, Pei Wei Asian Bistro, has 150 locations throughout the U.S., including one on Walnut Street in Cary, adjacent to Cary Towne Center. The big draw here is price and convenience; the chain boasts every item on the pan-Asian menu costs less than $10. This isn't relaxed dining, it's order-at-the-counter fast-casual, and it gets the job done without the frills.

Since Pei Wei is owned by P.F. Changs, a popular choice among gluten-free diners, we thought we'd check out the offerings at Pei Wei. But whereas Changs has a whopping 17 gluten-free choices, Pei Wei has a menu of just five items they call "Recommended for Gluten Intolerant diets." Three of those items are incarnations of chicken salad: Vietnamese Chicken Salad Rolls (order without the Thai peanut sauce), Asian Chopped Chicken Salad (substitute lime vinaigrette dressing and no wonton strips), and Pei Wei Spicy Chicken Salad (shrimp can be substituted). The other two recommended items are Pei Wei Spicy and Pei Wei Sweet and Sour, with a choice of chicken or shrimp in either dish.

Note the disclaimer at the bottom of the menu which reads, "Products containing gluten are prepared in our kitchen." In other words, BEWARE if cross-contamination is a concern. The good news is: the kitchen is open and visible from the dining area, so vigilant diners can keep a close eye on food preparation.

Ordering at the counter, it was evident that the staff had received training on Pei Wei's gluten free options. The woman we spoke with was able to answer specific gluten questions about each dish. When the computerized order went through, we could hear shouts of "Gluten-Free!" coming from the kitchen, as the information passed among the food preparers.

Even though my daughter is the one who MUST eat gluten-free, all three of us ordered off the gluten-free menu, in order to get a true idea of options. When I ordered, I asked that the non-gluten-free Thai peanut sauce be served on the side of my Vietnamese Chicken Salad Rolls. When our server brought the food to the table, he warned me that the side of sauce wasn't gluten-free, and asked if I wanted him to bring it back to the kitchen -- another sign of good staff training. The Chicken Salad rolls were tasty, if funny looking, and I skipped the peanut sauce altogether: chicken, fresh lettuce, mint, vermicelli thin rice noodles, and lime vinaigrette packaged in chewy rice paper. The rolls seemed a lighter option than the syrupy, sauce-laden dishes, all too prevalent at Amer-Asian restaurants.

My daughter chose the Pei Wei Sweet and Sour Chicken without the sauce (see above. Although rest easy, the GF sweet and sour sauce is gluten-free). The chicken arrived at the table breaded, despite the menu description as "non-battered chicken." When I inquired about the batter, I was quickly reassured that the GF chicken is breaded with potato starch, and is gluten-free. It was a comfort that all three of the staff members I interacted with were fully informed about the requirements of a gluten-free diet.

Here is a summary of the pros and cons of Pei Wei Asian Diner in Cary, as we experienced it:


* Quick, cheap and convenient dining option.
* Staff well trained in gluten-free dietary requirements.
* Kitchen visible from dining area.


* Risk of cross-contamination due to mixed kitchen.
* Limited gluten-free menu selection.

All in all, we plan to return to Pei Wei in the future, but with caution.

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