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Asian Bowling

Pei Wei (pronounced pay way) Asian Diner is a restaurant based on a fictitious Chinese chef. The menu says the young Pei Wei used to go to bed thinking of recipes from China, Thailand, Vietnam and Japan while living in Taiwan. Indeed, Pei Wei the restaurant is a mix of Chinese, Thai, Korean, Vietnamese and Japanese flavors in a handsome quasi-American diner motif: American Graffiti meets the white takeout carton. For one, the floor is done up in bright red linoleum tiles. Stacks of red and black bowls and plates are lined up in front of the kitchen. Beams in the ceiling are veneered in cherry wood paneling. There's even a counter in front of the open kitchen where you can sit and watch a bevy of cooks spoon and splash food and sauces in large woks heated by gas jets. In between dishes they ladle water into the wok, toss in a scouring pad and work the bowl with a spatula before dumping the soiled water into the sink.

Pei Wei is a counter-service operation. Lighted menu panels are mounted on one wall, and orders are placed in front of a display case that holds neat rows of beer bottles buried up to the bottle caps in crushed ice. White wines in wine chillers flank the beer bottles, while red wines are lined up behind the case. Plastic numbered tokens are provided after ordering, which are to be attached to the alligator clip that rises out of a metal chopstick canister at each table.

Pei Wei is the fast-casual kid sibling of P.F. Chang's China Bistro, which is probably why it offers minced chicken lettuce wraps just as P.F's does, and they come across with the same minced-chicken-tumbled-into-your-lap iceberg verve.

What doesn't come across well is Pei Wei's spring rolls, a pasty core of cabbage, ginger, carrot, onion and glass noodles sheathed in a greasy fried won ton. Much better are the crispy pot stickers: fried dumpling pillows pinched off at the top and stuffed with pork, cabbage, scallions and ginger. The outside is crisp without any grease hints, and the ingredients inside are separate and distinct with a gust of ginger to give the clean flavors dimension.Hot sour soup was a forgettable red-brown varnish that left a sticky film inside the mouth long after the dreadful fluid was swallowed.

Pei Wei pad Thai was unruly, too: dry and pasty. Rice noodles crowned with crushed nuts were sticky (though not gathered in a knot from ill-cooked noodles) and carried scant evidence of the Thai sweet-sour sauce they were supposed to be dressed in. But bits of egg were distinct.

The best thing sampled at this diner with a name that sounds like a cash-flow thoroughfare is the Pei Wei spicy chicken salad. Wok-seared chicken is poured into the center of a bed of lettuce, carrots, cucumbers and crisp rice noodles ringed by juicy tomatoes. Lime vinaigrette is splashed on the greens creating a cool, brisk flavor layer just under the warm moist chicken.

For those who wish to escape heat, the lo mein noodle bowl with well-prepared egg noodles, carrots, scallions and stingy slivers of shiitake mushroom and moist chicken in a rice wine-garlic sauce was brimming with clean, innocuous flavors.

Pei Wei fried rice resounded with flavor, but the mixture of scallion, egg, bell pepper and carrot with rice was overwhelmed with oil. Still, the shrimp ordered with it were plump and juicy.

The teriyaki bowl worked well, with chicken that was juicy, chewy, delicious and sheened in a sweet soy glaze.

P.F. Chang's developed Pei Wei with the help of Mark Brezinski, one of the founding partners of Tin Star, another fast-casual concept. And viewed from the perspective of the fast-casual chute, Pei Wei is in the top tier of the crop. The food is cheap, filling and fresh, the front-of-the-house staff is friendly and accommodating, and it's all done in a richly handsome outlet.

It's just that the little Pei Wei story on the front of the menu makes you wonder if at some point they'll leverage the concept with a Pei Wei chef doll and maybe a Saturday-morning cartoon.

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