It's strange now to think there was a time when Panda Inn was one of my favorite restaurants in the world. I know I am not alone in that, as a child, I did not think there was anything better than Chinese food. Paper wrapped chicken, egg rolls, fortune cookies... these were mysterious, delicious things. To a young boy, a meal at Panda Inn was as exciting as a trip to the Great Wall of China.
Three things affected my love of Panda Inn. First, my high school started bringing in Panda Express for lunch once a month or so. I realized there was very little difference in the quality between the two places. (For those of you readers not in Southern California, Panda Inn is a sit-down restaurant that opened in Pasadena in the early-70s. Panda Express, the fast-casual, mall food court staple with over 1200 locations worldwide, grew out of Panda Inn in the 80s.) The big difference was in the price; a meal at Panda Express cost a fraction of the same meal at Panda Inn.
Second, Yang Chow opened a few blocks away from Panda Inn when I was a teenager. I preferred pretty much everything about the former: the spring rolls, the chicken salad, and all the entrees tasted much better. Family dinners at Panda Inn, which had been a routine, shifted to Yang Chow, and everyone was just fine with that.
And third, when I was 21 I had my first Chinese dim sum lunch in Monterey Park. It was a culinary revelation. This was what Chinese food was supposed to taste like. I started experimenting with dim sum at places throughout the San Gabriel Valley. I took notice of the lack of diversity of the crowds at Panda Inn. It's not hard to draw a conclusion about the kind of palate Panda caters to. At two dim sum joints I visited in Monterey Park, I was the only white person in the house. White chocolate fortune cookies were not on the menu
So years went by without me ever returning to Panda Inn. About a year ago I had lunch there with my mom and thought it was pretty good, although nothing remarkable. (The lunch specials that we both had were a good deal, though.) Just two weeks ago, Elizabeth and I stopped by for lunch only to be told they weren't doing lunch specials that day. We got an appetizer and an entree and I was terribly disappointed by both. I did not plan to ever eat at Panda Inn again.
But some cousins of mine come down this way from the central coast every summer and sail to Catalina for a week. On the night they get back, their routine is the same: they have dinner at Panda Inn and spend the night at my parents' house before heading home in the morning. Two of my young cousins are the age I was when I thought Panda Inn was so great. (Years ago I had Chinese food with them in Santa Maria; it was the worst Chinese food I have had in California. So compared to that, I'm sure Panda Inn seems fantastic.) I have never joined one of these excursions to Panda Inn, but this year I was able to.
There were fourteen of us and we all sat around a large round table in a private room. Other than my cousin Ed's wife, June (who was born in China and makes the amazing egg rolls I described a few months ago), we were all white. As was almost every other table in the building. It was like being at a Utah Jazz game. We started with some appetizers and then ordered several entrees in large, family-size portions. There is a lot of food so I'm going to go through the pictures in small batches.
I usually love a cold Tsingtao with Chinese food, but I wasn't in the mood for beer this evening so I had my second-favorite beverage in this situation: hot tea. My dad and cousin both had Tsingtaos, though.
The potstickers were surprisingly good. No, they are never going to be confused with the almost-perfect potstickers at Luscious Dumplings, but they were more than passable. Often potstickers are flabby, broken-open things that have not been fried enough on the one side. These were done very well. The hot mustard, however, was barely spicy. I much prefer the sinus-clearing stuff at Golden China.
It's pretty hard to screw up vegetable spring rolls. You put veggies in a wrapper and fry it until the wrapper is crisp. Pretty much the only way you can ruin that is to not fry it long enough. And these were fine, although comparing them to June's egg rolls is like comparing 2012 to The Great Escape. (I just saw 2012 the other day; it is the worst movie I have ever seen, even worse than Robin Hood: Men In Tights, which held the record for the last 17 years.)
I am not a fan of ribs, but I tried a small bite of the "sesame baby back ribs." I thought they were too salty and fatty, but take my opinion with a (proverbial) grain of salt; that's how I feel about almost all ribs.
Shrimp and potato croquettes: I have never had these before at Panda Inn. In fact, I never would have guessed they were on the menu. But they were delicious. Usually the shrimp in a croquette is overcooked, in my experience, but these were cooked perfectly.
Lo mein is always one of my least favorite dishes at any Chinese restaurant, and this was no exception.
I tried the "wok-seared Mongolian beef" because it was there, but I found the beef to be extremely bland. The spicy soy sauce was nice, but that was pretty much the only flavor of the dish.
My cousin Alex is a vegetarian, so she ordered the spicy eggplant. I do not like eggplant and this was one of only two dishes of the evening I did not try.
The kung pao shrimp was indistinguishable from every other kung pao shrimp I have ever had. I ate a couple and they were well-cooked, but this dish was completely forgettable.
The "sweet and aromatic chicken" was the surprise of the evening. Two weeks ago I had the sweet and aromatic shrimp and found it be to a very disappointing dish with little flavor. The chicken, however, was very flavorful. It was a lighter, spicier, much tastier version of orange chicken. If I ever return to Panda Inn, this will be my entree.
The Panda Beef is the same crispy beef offered at most Americanized Chinese restaurants in town, which isn't the worst thing in the world. But it's not exactly a good thing, either. It's crispy and flavored with garlic, ginger and pepper. I did not like it nearly as much as the crispy beef at Yujean Kang's, and if I want this dish again I would rather just go to Panda Express and pay half the price for their "Beijing beef." (Although I don't see that happening any time soon.) That being said, I ate quite a few pieces of this and did not have any complaints.
The "shrimp in garlic sauce" was my favorite dish of the evening: tender shrimp in a spicy garlic sauce (perhaps "spicy" is too strong a word, I suppose, but compared to most of the items, hell even compared with the "hot mustard," it was spicy) with fresh vegetables. Several dishes we had this evening contained vegetables, but these were by far the best.
My dad loves tea-smoked duck. He shared this with June, but I imagine he could have eaten the whole thing himself. I have no idea how it tasted; this was the other dish I did not try.
The "honey walnut shrimp" are identical to the dish of the same name at Panda Expess. I tried them at the latter a few weeks ago with the intention of blogging about them, but I never got around to it. I find them too sweet, although the shrimp were high quality, as were the shrimp in every one of these dishes. (There is another well-known Chinese restaurant chain in Pasadena whose shrimp I find completely inedible.)
My cousin Jonas wanted the "upside down crispy noodles" with shrimp. I have never tried that before at Panda Inn - though I have certainly had it at other restaurants - and I did not much care for it. There was far too much oil in the "wine sauce."
Of course the meal ended with the white chocolate fortune cookies. I still like them, although if I never ate one again I don't think there would be any big hole in my life.
We did a pretty good job with the food, all things considered, but there were still two giant bags of leftovers to take home.
It was a fun meal at Panda Inn, but that had more to do with the company and the family-style eating than anything relating to the quality of the cuisine. It was certainly fun to see my young cousins enjoy the food like my brother and I did when we were that age. If I'm invited to another dinner with them next summer, I will be glad to attend. But in a valley with the plethora of Chinese options that we have here, most of them cheaper and better, I don't see myself ever choosing to go to Panda Inn again.