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Pei Wei Asian Diner Opens in Fair Lakes

Quick-casual food from China, Japan, Korea, Thailand, Vietnam.

The Dan Dan Noodles dish features bean sprouts, scallions and chili-seared garlic soy sauce, and Clifton's Ted Muelhaupt had his cooked with beef. One of the first customers at the new, Pei Wei Asian Diner in Fair Lakes, he loved his meal.

"I've always been a fan of Asian noodle dishes, and this was a good one," he said. "It was really excellent."

This quick-casual restaurant offers food from China, Japan, Korea, Thailand and Vietnam, and it just opened Monday, Aug. 14, off West Ox Road and the Fair Lakes Parkway, near Dick's and Kohl's. It's open Sunday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-9:30 p.m., and Friday-Saturday 'til 10 p.m. It's at 4461 Market Commons Drive; phone 703-803-4466.

Customers may dine in or take out, and all food is cooked to order in a matter of minutes in sizzling woks over high heat. Diners choose their style of entree and whether they want it with beef, chicken, pork, shrimp, scallops or vegetables and tofu. Entrees range from $6.75 to $9, and children's portions are available.

Muelhaupt's wife Peg began with the Cool Lettuce Wraps appetizer that's made with minced chicken, shiitake mushrooms, water chestnuts, scallions and spicy soy sauce. "It was absolutely fabulous — very crisp and light, with a wonderful flavor," she said. Her main dish was Orange Peel Chicken made with chili-bean sauce, scallions, garlic, snap peas and carrots.

"You could taste the flavors," she said. "It wasn't just a hodgepodge." She also liked the good-sized portions, friendly service and decor — especially the bright, red floor which matches the serving dishes. "We ate at the Pei Wei in Minnesota and were excited to see one here, too," she said. "I'm glad I don't have to get on a plane to Minneapolis to eat here again."

This is Pei Way's (pronounced "Pay Way") 94th restaurant in the U.S. and first in Virginia. "The education and income levels here, and the population density, are such that we knew this would be a good location," explained development partner Dennis Pedra. "With all the condos and townhouses here, it's just incredible."

He was also pleased that a Whole Foods grocery store will be Pei Wei's neighbor because "we share a similar customer base — people more adventuresome in their dining habits and, in many cases, more into food. And they're a little more cosmopolitan; they've tried different foods, traveled, have heard of miso, for example, and want to try it here."

The new restaurant is 3,000 square feet and seats 80 people inside and 20 on the patio. Pedra says about 40 percent of the business is takeout, but those eating in will enjoy the hip, black-and-red decor, quick service and high-quality food. There's even a community table for groups or singles. It's a division of P.F. Chang's China Bistro, but a different dining experience.

"It's great for people who want to get their food quickly and, with children, it's easier," said Pedra. "You can be in and out of here in 25 minutes. You tell us what you want and we'll cook it." There's a staff of about 50, and waiters and waitresses refill beverages at the tables and see if customers need anything else.

Nothing's pre-assembled, but the kitchen set-up is conducive to rapid production. At one station, employees cut the food into small pieces, then it's passed to the four wok chefs who focus completely on the cooking.

"We have 17 base sauces we add to and build on to make our dishes," said Eric Justice, corporate chef and culinary director. "There are three wok stations, with two woks per station, and one chef works two woks simultaneously. We have a 120,000 btu stove — it's like cookin' on a jet engine. You can boil water in about 30 seconds."

Woks are black steel, and only cholesterol-free, all-vegetable oil is used. And oil used for meat dishes is kept separate from that used for vegetable entrees.

Dining with his brother, Jeff Muelhaupt of Woodbridge said his Sweet and Sour Chicken tasted great. "It was a nice blend of onions and pineapples," he said. "And it was very light; not a heavy batter." His wife Chris enjoyed the Honey-Seared Crispy Chicken. "It was really good — sweet and salty," she said. "I thought it would be too spicy, but it was mild. And I thought the atmosphere was nice and the prices were reasonable."

Celebrity chefs such as Mark Miller of Red Sage and Coyote Cafe help develop the dishes. And Justice is about to take a field trip to Southeast Asia, including Tokyo and Bangkok, to eat the food and visit lots of kitchens. "I'll try to find some new ingredients and then introduce some of those authentic flavors with our own twist," he said.

"We're an Asian restaurant, not just Chinese," added Pedra. "We use udon noodles from Japan; Thai dishes have lighter flavors, so we'll use more aromatics and herbs."

"The niche is fast, very fresh food," said Justice. "Only scallops, shrimp and edamame [soybeans] are frozen. We cut and marinate our own beef, chicken and pork every day. We also cut and roll all the dim sums, spring rolls and crab wontons daily, and we make soup twice a day.

Popular dishes include Mandarin Kung Pao, flavored with spicy chili-seared soy sauce, scallions, garlic, snap peas, carrots and peanuts, plus Pad Thai — spicy Thai sweet-and-sour sauce, tofu, bean sprouts, egg, crushed peanuts, lime, cilantro and rice noodles.

Honey-Seared entrees are also popular and are among Pei Wei's signature dishes. Also in this category is Spicy Korean, made with hot-pepper sauce, garlic, mushrooms, onions, carrots, long beans and toasted sesame seeds; Blazing Noodles, featuring tomato black-pepper sauce, snap peas, cilantro, Thai basil and chow fun noodles; and Asian Coconut Curry, made with green-curry coconut sauce, ginger, Thai basil, red bell pepper, onions and long beans.

Noodle and rice-bowl dishes include Japanese Udon Noodles with soy mirin sauce, shiitake mushrooms, carmelized onions, baby spinach, Napa cabbage and scallions. The Soba Miso Bowl features red miso sauce (soybean based), baby spinach, cabbage, ginger, garlic and buckwheat noodles.

Minced Chicken with Cool Lettuce Wraps is the top-selling appetizer. Other choices are edamame, spring rolls, soup and crab wontons. Also featured are Asian Chopped Chicken Salad with sesame-ginger vinaigrette, Pei Wei Spicy Chicken Salad and Vietnamese Chicken Salad Rolls.

Beverages include Mandarin orange green tea and chai spice black tea, both of which received rave reviews from customers. Beer and wine are also available.

Pleased with the new, Fair Lakes restaurant, Pedra said, "We feel that, in this [restaurant] segment, no one has the same quality for the price that we have. We're serving real food for $7. And you can sit at the counter and watch our cooks cook. We're proud of our chefs and we like people to see our cooks put together the food."

Having lunch there together Monday were Todd Adkins, John Covington and Chris Milbert, who all work in Fair Lakes. Adkins called his Ginger Broccoli excellent and said the beef tasted like real steak. Covington, who's Korean, said his Sweet and Sour Chicken wasn't too sweet and "was just perfect."

Milbert dined on Orange Chicken with brown rice and said the rice was cooked just right and the chicken was tender. "And I liked the depth of flavor," he said. "The orange rind was cooked through, so it was chewy, instead of tough, and the steamed carrots were a nice touch. I would definitely recommend this place."