That old feeling
Hitting the spot at Panda Inn
By Dan O'Heron 12/15/2011
Recently, the cold winds pushed me to the door of Panda Inn. Like an ex-athlete, who gets twinges in his joints when there’s a change in the weather, I could almost feel “orange chicken” in my bones.
Entering the restaurant, I got to thinking about how so many people contemplating dinner are inspired to say, “I feel like Chinese.” And how seldom is heard, “I feel like Northern Italian” or “Mediterranean.” How odd. Chinese food doesn’t have to taste as good as other ethnic cuisines — though it does at times — but it’s almost always the most often desired by diners’ instinctive gut feelings.
Before ordering orange chicken and other dishes in the scrapbook of my Panda Inn memories, I asked Manager Steve Yip what was in the orange sauce that made the chicken so popular. After rattling off “Orange peel, vinegar, soy, sugar, onion,” he stopped short. It figured that Yip was following the script of famous chefs who, when sharing a recipe always leave out one ingredient.
“And …?” I persisted. After a long pause, looking the other way, Yip replied, “And ketchup.”
Bewildered that such a word had been spoken at all, I decided to forego orange chicken and check out some new items from a holiday menu that should carry on until late January.
From the regular menu, I had planned to start with audibly crisp wontons, filled with crab meat, cream cheese and scallions, and sided by a dandy chili-sauce dip. While this dish would win any egg-rolling contest, I chose to fly with the new menu’s mixture of chicken, shrimp and a robust fish sauce, a bounty ready for wrapping in romaine-like, deep-green lettuce leaves.
With a dining partner, I would go on to sample several of six additional new items. These new dishes would satisfy the old urges, and yet they tasted as “fresh as a daisy,” if you can pardon that wilted metaphor.
A special enjoyment came with jumbo prawns on a sizzling platter. Coated with a spicy garlic/basil sauce and served over fresh okra, the meat had a sweet, delicate flavor that I thought tasted better than lobster ($15.95).
For the same price, also served on a hot, bubbling platter, beef short ribs, soaked in a hearty sauce and mixed with a medley of bell peppers and oyster mushrooms, really hit the spot.
Other new dishes of intrigue ranged from $5.95 for salmon egg rolls to $13.95 for Asian fish cakes. But across the room, almost culpable with desire, my attention was caught by the sight of a group dining on chicken breast that simmered in a stone pot. Later, I’d learn that for $14.95, it was served in a light curry broth with bosky-flavored enoki mushrooms and thickly veined Chinese cabbage.
In both new and regular-menu dishes, Panda Inn chefs provide an exciting spectrum of flavors, textures, colors and fragrances in what is called “Mandarin/Szechuan-style” cookery.
Not a regional designation, the term “Mandarin cooking” suggests aristocratic dishes — the kind that pick up on the best elements of each of China’s five major regions and were once favored by high public officials in Imperial China.
“Szechuan” indicates a particular emphasis on spicy and flamboyant Western regional cooking. It’s reflected here in the orange chicken and other plates like tofu and eggplant ($6.95) and scallops in garlic sauce ($17.95). And in the new menu, chefs leap the Great Wall to make a Thai seafood noodle dish I’m told is popular enough already to stay on as a regular.
Founded in Pasadena in 1973 by Andrew Cherng, a mathematician by training, and his father, a master chef from Taipei, Panda Inn was wired for success. The father-son team was later joined by Andrew’s wife, Peggy, an electrical engineer.
Today, there are six fine dining Panda Inns in Southern California. In 1983, the Cherngs opened the first fast-casual satellite, Panda Express, in the Glendale Galleria. Now, as the fastest growing Chinese chain in North America, there are more than 1,400 locations coast to coast and in Puerto Rico.
Still family-owned and operated by the Cherngs, the company has not had to go to the stock market to finance its epic success. And now, with no signs of “planned pandahood,” the chain looms as a pandemic.
3488 E. Foothill Blvd., Pasadena