Chang's latest restaurant is located in a sprawling strip mall heavy on big American chains. (Tim Carman/The Washington Post)

But after years of reading about, and salivating over, the cooking of Peter Chang, never once finding my palate and his plates in the same space, I found an unlikely note in my inbox: an invitation to the grand opening party of Peter Chang Cafe, his second restaurant in central Virginia and possibly the prototype of things to come from the chef.

It was not supposed to be like this. My first experience with the Great Chang should have required more suffering on my part. It should have required phone calls, voyeuristic pawing through other people’s posts on food blogs, maybe even FBI triangulation. It should have been more like John Binkley’s experience. It should not, under any circumstances, have come via electronic invitation.

The menu for last Wednesday's opening dinner tried to balance heat levels, offering diners mild, medium and fiery dishes to give their tongues time to recover. (Tim Carman/The Washington Post)

We didn’t drive immediately to the Richmond ’burbs, where Chang’s new restaurant is located. Instead, we made a stop at Peter Chang’s China Grill in Charlottesville, where I attempted to acquaint myself with Chang’s Sichuan cooking with a preliminary gorging in advance of an even larger face-stuffing that evening. While there, we had the good fortune of meeting China Grill co-owner James Lee, a chatty character in a sweater vest who could talk for hours about Sichuan cooking and the cultural revolution.

Former Post food critic Phyllis Richman found the dishes at Chang's opening party good, but not as transcendent as her previous experiences. (Tim Carman/The Washington Post)

Once we reached the opening party at Peter Chang Cafe, I think it’s safe to say we also preferred the Charlottesville strip mall over the one in Glen Allen; the latter is a monstrosity of American chains: GNC, Domino’s Pizza. Radio Shack. H&R Block. Wal-Mart. GameStop. Wendy’s. Chang’s 115-seat restaurant feels like a newborn lamb among hungry lions.

The Sichuan lamb chops, marinated in orange and pear juices, were rosy and tender on first bite — before the incendiary heat of the peppers kicked in. (Tim Carman/The Washington Post)

Below are some photos and commentary from last week’s opening-night party.

The pork soup buns, while not as delicate and juicy as those we sampled at Peter Chang's China Grill in Charlottesville, were nonetheless a forceful reminder that there are two Changs in the house. Lisa Chang, the chef’s wife, handles the appetizers, desserts (what there are) and all the doughs. She is clearly the unsung hero in the Chang kitchen. (Tim Carman/The Washington Post)