Chasing Peter Chang

A hard-to-track chef sets up shop in Virginia Beach.

By Zach Patton

You’ve probably never heard of Peter Chang, but he just may be the best Chinese chef in America. And a visit to Virginia Beach is the perfect opportunity to try his Szechuan cuisine for yourself.

Born in China’s Hubei province and trained at a culinary school in Wuhan, Peter Chang established himself as one of China’s preeminent chefs during the 1980s and ’90s. After a few years spent running the kitchen at the Chinese embassy in Washington, D.C., in the early 2000s, Chang struck out on his own. He hopscotched around various Chinese restaurants in Virginia, Georgia and Tennessee. Chang kept a decidedly low profile, often working under aliases and switching restaurants without warning. Along the way his masterly style of cooking and his under-the-radar tactics gained him a cult foodie following. Devoted “Changians” tracked him online, posting Chang sightings and flocking to whatever hole-in-the-wall he turned up in next. The “disappearing chef” was profiled in the Washington Post, the New York Times and The New Yorker.

Then Chang settled down. After a couple of stabs at launching a restaurant of his own, in 2011 he finally opened Peter Chang’s China Grill, in Charlottesville, Virginia. He’s quickly built a mini empire: There are now seven Peter Chang eateries in Virginia and Maryland, and more are on the way. (And no, he’s not connected to the P.F. Chang’s chain.) The Virginia Beach location opened in December 2013, and a fast-casual spin-off called Peter Chang Wok is slated to open there later this summer.

What can you expect at Peter Chang’s? Banish all thoughts of limp noodles and overcooked meat in bland brown sauces. This is authentic Szechuan cuisine, full of clean flavors, fresh ingredients and plenty of chili-pepper heat. Chang’s specialties include delectable dry-fried eggplant studded with mouth-numbing Szechuan peppercorns, and fiery dandan noodles topped with shredded beef and flecked with peanuts and scallions. The fish rolls are warm, crispy cigars packed with tender flounder and fresh cilantro. And the scallion pancakes on their own are worth a trip: lighter-than-air pillows of savory fried batter, each roughly the size of your head. At the extreme end of the menu are traditional Chinese dishes, like stewed pig’s feet with lotus root, Grandmother’s Diced Rabbit and garlic-chili pork belly. But there are Chinese-American classics, too: The orange chicken is delicious, bathed in a bright citrus glaze.

The restaurant itself is no-frills, wedged between a Walgreens and an OfficeMax in an unassuming strip mall. Most of the quite-filling entrees run about $17. It’s a great way to sample authentic Szechuan dishes—and to experience the work of a modern master of Chinese cuisine.

THE DETAILS
Peter Chang
3364 Princess Anne Rd., Suite 505, Virginia Beach; 757-468-2222; peterchangvirginiabeach.com; dinner for two from $50*
  • *Estimated meal prices do not include drinks, tax or tip.
  • NOTE: Information may have changed since publication. Please confirm key details before planning your trip.
  • Published: July 2015