P.F. Chang’s comes to Shanghai, but can you really sell American Chinese food to the country that invented the wok?


Nearly two centuries ago, Chinese workers stir-fried an amalgam of home and sold it in America. Last month that legacy returned to China in a steaming pile of fried honey chicken and scallion pancakes.

P.F. Chang’s, the Scottsdale, Ariz., chain that made its name off American-style Chinese food, just opened its first restaurant in Shanghai on the eighth floor of a high-end mall. It now offers the wonders of Mongolian beef and dynamite shrimp to the country that invented the wok.

The chain has nearly 300 restaurants around the world, but none like this. Executives are betting on the success of a concept wrapped in history, politics, identity and lettuce. They aim to sell a quintessentially American interpretation of Chinese food to a new generation of affluent Chinese.


Since the late 19th century, Chinese immigrants from San Francisco to New York have modified their gastronomy for Americans’ sweeter palates. (Think chop suey and orange chicken.) But traditional food is revered in China, where citizens take pride in their eight regional cuisines and “Have you eaten?” is a common greeting.

P.F. Chang’s success hinges on perception. Is this creation an unrecognizable disgrace to its origins or a tasty testament to the crossflows of migration?

“I thought the taste would be more suited to foreigners because they like sweet and sour,” said Zhang Heng, a 27-year-old public relations worker, who recently chatted with a friend over chicken lettuce wraps. “But it suits me too.”

The story of P.F. Chang’s China Bistro begins in the very city where it just landed. And it starts with Cecilia Chiang, who once looked remarkably like the elegant woman smiling down at her customers from the mural on the restaurant’s back wall.

Born into a well-off family near Shanghai, Chiang fled the city with her children in 1949 when the communists took power. She eventually landed in San Francisco, where she introduced customers to the bold, vinegary complexities of northern Chinese cuisine. Fans nicknamed her the “Julia Child of Chinese food in America” and she expanded her upscale restaurant, the Mandarin, to Beverly Hills.


Her son, Philip Chiang, opened a more casual affair nearby. It was there that he met restaurateur Paul Fleming, and the two dreamed up P.F. Chang’s — an Americanized mash of their names. The first location opened in 1993 in an Arizona shopping mall. A private equity firm now owns the chain, which last year earned about $1.2 billion in revenue. Chiang still consults.

“This trail back and forth, that is what’s supposed to happen,” said Rui Xi, who leads Lost Plate food tours that introduce foreigners to authentic cuisine in Shanghai and other Chinese cities. “It’s a cultural exchange. … Chinese American food is a foreign food for [Chinese], but not really.”

But nostalgia and novelty only go so far. Many of the first customers said they tried the restaurant because they heard about it on “The Big Bang Theory,” an American sitcom that has reached a level of obsession here akin to “Seinfeld” in the U.S. Even the notion of “farm to wok” — a key marketing tool in the company’s other restaurants — is taken for granted in China, where food already comes out fast and fresh.

“If Chinese want to have something Western they usually prefer traditional American food or other Western food, rather than something like Chinese American food,” said Shirley Lu, a Shanghai-based analyst for Euromonitor International, a market research firm. “This kind of food can attract the foreigners in China, maybe.”

The restaurant’s opening also drew skepticism in the U.S., where the Trump administration is threatening China with billions of dollars in tariffs.


David Frum, a former speechwriter for President George W. Bush, had his own theory for the chain’s expansion to Shanghai.

“Trump continues to explore new U.S. imposed punitive sanctions on China,” he tweeted.

P.F. Chang’s isn’t the first to wade into the perilous world of American Chinese food politics. A Shanghai restaurant called Fortune Cookie did a brisk business in moo shu pork and egg fried rice until its owners moved away in 2016. Seoul’s similar themed brand, Ho Lee Chow, has operated for two decades. (P.F. Chang’s other Asia-based restaurant is in South Korea.)

“Despite trade wars and bickering, there’s still a respect on China’s side for American culture and its influence,” said Jennifer 8. Lee, who produced “The Search for General Tso,” a documentary about Chinese food in America.

She pointed to the ubiquitous white takeout box found at Chinese restaurants in the U.S. “In American eyes, looking at those takeout boxes you see a symbol of China,” Lee said. “And the rest see a symbol of America because the only place they see those boxes is American movies.”

Executives learned that lesson when they ordered the foldable boxes for Shanghai, only to discover no one here used them, said Kristen Briede, P.F. Chang’s director of international operations.

The company also struggled to access many of the goods it ships from China to the U.S., such as water chestnuts and bamboo shoots. Their producers export the highest-quality items, Briede said, which meant grabbing them as they left the country.


Managers weigh the cultural challenges against one massive draw: a market of nearly 1.4 billion people.

“A little bit of this is simply the law of large numbers,” said Michael Osanloo, the company’s chief executive. “Upper-middle-class, even middle-class Chinese would prefer to eat protein-based meals and not just fill up on rice and noodles.”

Chinese like to see their food options, so the menu looks like a picture book. Portions are smaller. New creations include a remake of chicken and waffles, crispy pieces of the bird atop a scallion-infused buttermilk pancake. Duck spring rolls contain mozzarella cheese.

But it will take more than unusual food combinations to appease some discerning Shanghai residents. The dishware “looks like something you’d use in a street-side restaurant,” said Zhang Jing, a 27-year-old accounting teacher, who shrugged at the meal she shared with a friend.

Executives had hoped to keep a piece of the restaurant’s original identity, the requisite terra cotta horse at P.F. Chang’s entrances. It didn’t fit. That might not have been a bad thing; in China the horses are associated with a dead emperor.


The three men who gathered at the restaurant one evening weren’t looking for authenticity, but they were seeking familiarity.

They’d recently spent a month in Miami learning how to fly Boeing 787 Dreamliners for Shanghai Airlines. The pilots discovered crispy honey shrimp at a P.F. Chang’s in Florida. They were hooked.

“P.F. Chang’s is our representative for American Chinese food,” said Yuwei Xiang, one of the new devotees. Like his own culture’s food, it had become a point of pride.

He looked past the stack of plates, long since empty of evidence.

“But where’s the horse?”

Meyers is a special correspondent.

Twitter: @jessicameyers

Gaochao Zhang in The Times’ Beijing bureau contributed to this report.



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