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My little chain vacation

P.F. Chang's China Bistro welcomes diners in Westbury.

P.F. Chang's China Bistro welcomes diners in Westbury. (Dec. 16, 2010) Photo Credit: Jesse Newman

I spent some of last week visiting family in Baltimore where I’m not too familiar with the lay of the culinary land. Unwilling to relinquish my role as Bossy Pants, however, I dragged my mother to a couple of national chain restaurants.

On Long Island, I rarely eat at the chains: I’m too busy looking for new places serving dark-meat turkey sandwiches and no balsamic vinaigrette. Then, too, I feel compelled to support independently owned restaurants in their struggle against the monolith of Corporate Dining.

So it is with mixed feelings that I report how well I ate at The Cheesecake Factory and, especially, at  P.F. Chang’s China Bistro, each with a presence on Long Island. At P.F Chang’s I was relieved to see a menu largely devoid of Asian-fusion influences. We started with excellent pan-fried pork dumplings and “Northern-style” spareribs, sauceless but served with a haunting “five-spice” dipping salt.

Main courses -- wok-seared lamb over shredded lettuce, shrimp with lobster sauce -- were cleanly executed and very tasty. High marks to the pencil-thin asparagus stir-fried with Sichuan preserves. The place was attractive, our server was professional, the bill was reasonable. How can I complain?

I’ve always found the grandiose faux-Egyptian decor at Cheesecake Factory oppressive -- like I’m dining inside a pyramid at Epcot. But I admire the kitchen’s ongoing efforts to integrate new culinary trends into the sprawling menu.

Speaking of Asian fusion, you really can’t beat Cheesecake Factory’s Vietnamese tacos, steamed buns filled with roast pork, pickled vegetables and barbecue sauce. A great idea -- arugula salad with Marcona almonds and Parmesan -- could have used more olive oil. My stuffed chicken tortillas were OK, but mom’s miso-glazed salmon with white rice and snow peas was just about perfect.

And now, back to my regularly scheduled programming.

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