The scallion bubble pancake is everything at Peter Chang.
Balloon-sized, scallion-flecked orbs of air are invaluable in countering the spiciness of certain dishes when used like bread to tamp down heat on the palate. They’re also conversation-starters and friend-makers.
Go ahead, order one as soon as you sit down, especially if it’s your companions’ first visit, and watch the childlike wonder in their eyes when the dish arrives. Likewise, I’ve had strangers lean across tables to ask me what it is and, while I’m happy to describe it, my favorite response is to tear off a piece and hand it over. If there’s a tastier use for $3 ($2 during happy hour), I haven’t found it.
Unless you’ve been eating under a rock, chances are you recall the hullabaloo when the James Beard Award-nominated Chang opened his newest outpost in Scott’s Addition last summer. Besides the far more appealing city location, the décor handily beats that of the West End location. The building’s more industrial edges are softened with an open wood partition and a massive red canvas with gold glitter embellishments and red lotus blossom lamps hanging from the ceiling.
But let’s get real here, people come to Peter Chang to dine on high-quality Szechuan cuisine as conceived by the former Chinese embassy chef — and the surroundings matter not. That said, on all three of my visits the soundtrack is so well-suited to creating ambiance that not even a director of vibe could’ve done a better job.
In an era of small-plate eating and short attention spans, the menu delivers an abundance of offerings to mix and match. Pan-fried kung pao chicken buns ($8) are fluffy pillows fat with diced chicken, mushroom and lotus root filling. Crisply fried — but not in the least greasy — cigar-shaped cilantro fish rolls ($8) could change the minds of cilantro haters. They’re that good.
For eaters seeking a fanciful aspect to their food, imagine a sizable bun with a short straw sticking out, and you’ll have some idea of the sheer novelty of big soup buns ($4), in which you sip broth through the straw before diving into the savory ground-pork-filled center.
Cheers all around for thrifty lunch deals ($9-$11), which include a spring roll and a choice of egg drop, wonton or hot and sour soup, the latter an earthy, silky starter. Pickled peppers and fermented black beans combine to make Hunan fish ($10) a solid, entry-level dish for those unwilling to take the full pepper plunge.
Throughout the menu, fresh garlic shows up more than you might expect, including a dish that should be on every vegetarian’s favorite list — dry-fried green beans ($12). With blistered skins over crunchy interiors, the beans get a serious kick from chili-flavored oil, Sichuan peppercorns, scallions and, yep, garlic. Light, bright and utterly satisfying, the green beans are the siren song I can’t resist no matter how recently I’ve had them.
Nine options make up the menu page labeled “Grandmother’s home-style cooking,” but where Grandma truly rocks is with Sichuan double-cooked pork belly ($15), which comes with cabbage and leeks, a dish that gets everyone asking for seconds. Even those who avoid spiciness want more, albeit wrapped in pieces of scallion pancake, the equivalent of crafting their own homey Chinese finger food.
When’s the last time you had coconut, potatoes and jalapeños on the same plate? Reflecting myriad influences, clay pot chicken with pickled peppers ($16), plus long-cooked jalapeño, Thai chili, pickled pepper, onion and potato, has a distinct sweetness from the coconut milk in its winter-hearty broth.
As solid as the food is, service is a tad shakier. At a weekday lunch, we’re rushed to order despite a barely half-full dining room. When my companion inquires about a mocktail on a Thursday night, our server flatly insists that the restaurant can’t make one — but doesn’t offer to check with the bartender. Only on Sunday do we find someone willing to answer questions and let us order at our own pace.
But big deal. Out with friends last fall and considering dining options, someone suggests Peter Chang. “We’ve already been there twice this week,” one friend admits.
His partner amends it immediately: “But I’d go again tonight.”
That makes two of us. S
Mondays-Thursdays 11 a.m.-2:45 p.m., 5-9:45 p.m.; Fridays 11 a.m.-2:45 p.m., 5-11 p.m.; Saturdays noon-11 p.m.; Sundays noon-9:30 p.m.
2816 W. Broad St.