Monday, December 12, 2011

54 Photos and a Few Notes on Panda Inn

There is absolutely nothing wrong with Panda Inn, though I must confess its incredible popularity surprises me every time I'm there. In dozens of trips growing up, it was always crowded, and on my recent Saturday-night visit there was not a single empty able at 7 PM, and a line of people waiting as I exited the restaurant. If I were going for that ain't-I-hip kind of thing, I would describe the crowd and ponder whether they have ever ventured a few miles away to try more "authentic" Chinese food, but even this snarky hypothetical feels wrong: I doubt the crowds who patronize Panda Inn have any illusions about what they are eating. This is not challenging food and I don't think anyone cares. Americanized does not mean inferior, it means Americanized. Our meal was bookended by two anecdotes that I think perfectly sum up the kind of place Panda Inn is: at the start we had to ask for chopsticks because they only provided us forks; at the end we were served a plate of fortune cookies dipped in white chocolate.

But if you, like me, think that taste is all that matters, I promise you will find many things at Panda Inn that taste very good (though nothing that is the best of its kind in town; probably nothing that cracks a top ten list.)

For those of you who live elsewhere and have not heard of Panda Inn, it is the Chinese restaurant, opened in Pasadena in 1973, from which sprang Panda Express, the fast-casual joint with 1300+ locations in shopping malls, airports, and baseball stadiums across the country.

Recently I started a review of the worst Chinese restaurant I have ever been to with an anecdote of a meal on the Central Coast a dozen years ago with my cousins. Those cousins were in town over the weekend and, as happens every year or two, they wanted to take us all out for a huge meal at Panda Inn.

A side note: I rarely get to see my teenage cousins anymore, so there was no way I was going to miss this dinner. Would you like proof of that? Okay. Here is a photo from the other event I was invited to that evening:

Pigapalooza 2011. Seriously. My friends Tyler and Zach were roasting an entire pig. Jesus, 51 Saturdays per year I watch sports on the couch and drink beer on the patio. Of course the one Saturday of the year that I was invited to a pig roast, my favorite cousins were going to be in town. Still, it wasn't a difficult decision.

They gave us our own room with a large round table. There were 11 of us in total, my cousin Ed's wife, June, being the only Asian at the table. (Meaning, of course, that we were one of the more diversified tables at Panda Inn this evening.) She asked me what my favorite things are at Panda Inn and I replied that I don't really have any. She asked what my favorite Chinese foods are overall and I mentioned a few items at Chinese restaurants scattered around the San Gabriel Valley and she got a smile on her face.

"Oh," she said, "you like those kind of Chinese restaurants! Ed won't go to those with me."

There are quite a few familiar items on the menu. Once upon a time my favorite dish here was the "sweet & pungent" shrimp, but they are gone. A few years back I tried the "sweet & aromatic" version, hoping they'd be the same. They were not.

With the large group, we ordered several of the family-portion entrees. 

Emma had a Shirley Temple.

Jonas had a Roy Rogers.

I had a Tsingtao.

We started with some minced chicken lettuce cups: chicken, almonds, and oyster sauce in leaves of lettuce, with sides of hoisin sauce and hot mustard. There was nothing to distinguish these from dozens of other chicken lettuce wraps I have had, but they were still tasty.

The spring rolls would have been better if hot, but they were served only lukewarm. Still, I ate two of them.

The potstickers were my favorite of the appetizers: pork dumplings with soy sauce, although I used more hot mustard on them than soy.

Jonas and Emma really like the spare ribs, so there were three plates of them, but I'm not a big fan of ribs and did not have any.

Action shot #1: Emma grabbing a potsticker.

I had a second Tsingtao.

There was plenty of white rice, and a plate of asparagus, but I did not have any of either.

Every time we have dinner at Panda Inn (which as I wrote is maybe once every couple of years) there is a dish that surprises me. This time around it was the first thing I tried: the kung pao shrimp. These were spicy and the shrimp were perfectly cooked. I would gladly get these again at Panda Inn.

What has traditionally been my go-to dish at Panda is the sweet & aromatic chicken. Think orange chicken but with a less-sweet, more subtle sauce, with plenty of minced ginger. (I didn't get a picture of the whole plate because every time I tried to take one, someone spun the Lazy Susan to get the plate closer to them.) These were once again good... but not as good as I remembered.

I don't remember ever having the "Panda Rice" before, but I enjoyed it: scallops, shrimp and rice in a "garlic ginger oyster sauce."

Emma (and, it turns out, Elizabeth) loves the Lo Mein, but I didn't have any. Well, that's not entirely true: I ate the water chestnuts off of Elizabeth's plate. She hates them, I love them.

Action shot #2: Emma grabbing some Lo Mein.

The Panda Beef is cripsy beef with ginger and garlic in a peppercorn sauce. I used to think it was on par with Yujean Kang's crispy beef, but this dish certainly wasn't. It was good, and I had at least two helpings of it, but it was not what I would call great.

The honey walnut shrimp was also a surprise: there was no sweet flavor to it (Unlike Panda Express's take on the dish); it was a muted flavor, and the shrimp were crispy and tender.

My dad's favorite dish at Panda Inn is the Tea Smoked Duck, piled in buns. I didn't try any but he obviously enjoyed them.

Action shot #3: Derrick grabbing some Panda Beef.

As is our tradition, there was way too much food. We could have ordered at least two fewer entrees and been fine. Possibly four fewer.

The aforementioned white chocolate fortune cookies. I can't lie: they were very good.

Emma crumpled up her wrapper, shoved it down into her water glass, and spun it around. It was hypnotically attractive.

Our leftovers couldn't fit into one bag. Or two.

My cousins were driving three hours back up to the Central Coast and did not want to take any Chinese food with them to perfume their car on the ride. I understood. My parents told Elizabeth and I to take it all. So we did. I had it for lunch. And another dinner. And another lunch. And there is still some left.

I will close this with the same words I used when I wrote about a dinner at Panda Inn with these exact same people in July of 2010:

"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."


Stephen said...

Great post. I recall in the late 70's going to a much smaller Panda Inn with my parents a number of times. They were still trying to define their identity back then and had a very cool, almost retro, Polynesian lounge. The most I could squeeze out of it at that age was a Shirley Temple. It is unfortunate that it is no longer there.

Zachary said...

I'd like to say that the pig at Pigapalooza wasn't great... but I'd be lying. The 10lb pulled pork was also very good.

JustinM said...

Stephen: I don't really remember a whole lot of eating there as a kid - I remember more getting food to-go. Then when Yang Chow opened (I think '96) we went there almost exclusively for years. Finally I returned to Panda in '02 and saw how they had made the lounge much swankier. But not necessarily better.

If it were up to me, the next big dinner with them would be at Yang Chow - if they like Panda, I'm guessing they would like Yang Chow more.

Zachary: I'm glad. That would be pretty petty of me to hope the pig was bad because I couldn't be there!