What is P.F. Changs most popular dish? Chicken Lettuce Wraps, of course. A starter that makes you want to eat them as a meal. Of course, lettuce wraps are always a favorite, whether vegetarian or chicken, in better Chinese restaurants. There is something about the refreshing crisp of iceberg lettuce and the spicy, chewy, crispy filling. You want to make your family and friends happy, make some at home. A lettuce wrap, really, is a simple stir fry with the ingredients chopped fairly fine, with a spicy, salty, and somewhat sweet sauce both in the stir fry and provided as a topper. It is the Chinese answer to fajitas. Well, maybe not, but it is dang good.
So what is in P.F. Chang’s Chicken Lettuce Wraps? The menu, of course, gives you an idea. Wok-seared chicken, mushrooms, green onions and water chestnuts with crispy rice sticks served in lettuce cups. The mushrooms are straw mushrooms, which usually come in a can from your grocery store. For the crispy rice sticks, you’d want to look for “Maifun” rice sticks or rice noodles, which are a noodle made from rice powder and water. They are semi-transparent when raw, but turn white when you cook them. To make them crispy, you fry them quickly in a little oil over a medium-high heat. Most packages should have directions. Chang’s serves the stir-fry on a bed of the crispy rice sticks, mounded on a platter. You scoop up the amount you want and put it in a lettuce leaf, and spoon on some sauce. Then you just eat it like a taco.
Tod Wilbur, in his third book on copycat restaurant recipes has done a great job of duplicating P.F. Chang’s Chicken Lettuce Wrap, including the special sauce and all the ingredients for the stir-fry sauce. Also in the book, one of many of Wilbur’s books, are recipes for Applebee’s, Bahama Breeze, Bonefish Grill, Buffalo Wild Wings, Carrabas, Cheesecake Factory, Chili’s, Denny’s, IHOP, Joe’s Crab Shack, Olive Garden, Outback, Red Robin, T.G.I. Friday’s, and more!
The stuff you need should all be easy to find at a well-stocked grocery store, especially one with a good Asian section. The stir-fry seasonings include soy sauce, water, mirin, oyster sauce, and rice vinegar. Chicken breast meat is used, but dark meat lovers could use thigh meat.
Wilbur also includes the recipe for P.F. Chang’s Vegetarian Lettuce Wraps, which are also great. In fact, if you have avoided them because you think you’ll hate the tofu or you just think vegetarian food can’t taste as good, you might be quite surprised. I used to be a vegetarian and one of my favorite things was vegetarian lettuce wraps. Using baked tofu that is diced into fine cubes gives a nice meaty chew. Baked tofu is not as readily available as regular firm or extra firm tofu, and you definitely could use firm tofu in its place, but the cook will have to be longer to get a chewy texture to replace the chicken. However baked tofu is available in some larger grocery stores and easily found in Asian markets or specialty markets. Whole Foods and similar establishments will also carry it. It comes in flavors but the plain is what you’d need for the lettuce wraps, as terriaki or curry would clash with the other flavors in the dish. Unlike the chicken version, P.F. Chang’s vegetarian version has lime and mint, and uses red onion in place of green onions, which really wakes up the flavor and gives the wraps a refreshing zing. The special sauce is the same and includes sugar, water, soy sauce, rice vinegar, chili oil, green onions, mustard paste, and chili garlic sauce. All ingredients you should be able to find and fairly standard for Chinese cooking. The next time you’re at P.F. Chang’s, I recommend you take the leap and try the vegetarian wraps.
P.F. Chang’s does provide a few written version of their recipes in the “Chef’s Corner.” One such recipe is another lettuce wrap, the Ginger Chicken Stir-Fry Romaine Wraps with Citrus Soy. Sounds good! They call for romaine lettuce for this one, but I would still prefer good old iceberg. You can find that recipe here. It is a PDF so you’ll need to have Adobe Reader. The recipe says you could also do these with baby shrimps, fish, or beef. Come to think of it, I don’t see why you couldn’t use baby shrimp in place of chicken in the regular lettuce wraps. In fact, you could probably use it in the chicken or the vegetarian recipe.
Now something that is not included in the P.F. Chang’s wraps, but that I always like to have in my lettuce wraps, is a bit of chopped peanut or cashews. I love the crunch (that’s what the rice sticks are for) but also the nutty flavor it adds. I throw some in either version.
Now, you can find many copycat versions of these lettuce wraps on the web, but Todd Wilbur’s recipes are always better than most, and he works hard to perfect them, updating his recipes as he does so. Most people throw together a slapdash “close enough” version, write it up, and call it a day. The recipes might be very good and tasty, but not a perfect, or close to perfect, duplicate of the restaurant version.