Dining Out: Panda Express

Given the rough economy, furloughs, and other budget cutting, combined with the festivities of the Chinese New Year, what better time to consider that champion of cut-priced Chinese-style cuisine Panda Express.

I grew up a big fan of Chinese cooking. However, being short of money, a trip to the Chinese restaurant was a rare family treat to be anticipated and savored. All that changed when I came to America and discovered Chinese fast food. Living in Providence, Rhode Island, I would drive my barely roadworthy VW Bug to the Rhode Island Mall just to eat at the Manchu Wok. I was such a regular I was given free food when I brought in a new customer, so I frequently invited friends along for the risky ride.

But Panda Express has raised the relatively fast Chinese food model to better and more consistent heights with 1,272 locations. It now represents my single most frequent eatery and, with that in mind, here are my notes and tips for the perfect Panda experience:

Not just a mall food: As seen in Sacramento, Panda Express is rapidly becoming a chain of stand-alone restaurants rather than simply counters in shopping malls and airports.  

Freshness: While the ingredients used are fresh, with vegetables prepped on site, the outcome can sometimes suffer a little from time spent between cooking and serving. Always walk the line first and check for the dishes that look most recently cooked. This works in multiple buffet settings, of course, but at Panda the extra tip is to look for regular dishes that are out or only cooked to order and invest the extra 4-5 minutes as they cook a new batch just for you (this often works well for the Eggplant Tofu, for example, which is a standard dish but often cooked on demand only). In short, never decide in advance what you want, look first and decide second. This is less of a concern at busy times or in the busier restaurant locations, but it’s still worth checking out what’s available as there are also new and surprise dishes.

New dishes: it’s not just about the Orange Chicken anymore. The previously mentioned Eggplant Tofu has become a personal favorite of mine. In 2008, spicy Beijing Beef was added for the 25th anniversary and 2009’s Chinese New Year saw the addition of the excellent Firecracker Chicken, featuring “strips of marinated chicken breast, crisp red, green and yellow bell peppers, succulent sliced onions and red chili peppers all cooked to perfection in a wok with Panda’s original zesty firecracker sauce.” The “temporary” dish is still around and seems to move quickly enough to be one of the more frequently cooked and consequently freshest choices.

Check out the soup: There’s typically soup available and it can make a meal in multiple ways. As a single item it’s a great light, 90 calorie snack. With a side, it’s cheap and filling.  It counts as an entrée – so you can substitute in soup as one of the items you choose in a two or three entrée meal. Throw in the standard fortune cookie and your fast lunch suddenly becomes a three-course meal.

Big kids too: As with many food outlets, Panda offers a kids meal, consisting of a scaled down single side and entrée combination, a small drink, and a chocolate chip cookie. But unlike many others, I’ve never seen them enforce the 11 and under restriction. It’s a great light meal and a favorite of mine before a movie (and you can smuggle in the cookie!). Add a soup and you get the best of all worlds.

“Wok Smart” and other healthy choices:  Last summer, Panda began labeling some of their existing menu items as “Wok Smart” indicating that they have 250 or fewer calories.

Substituting steamed rice for fried rice, or even opting for steamed vegetables instead of rice or noodles, opens up a range of surprisingly healthy choices. Hot and Sour Soup, Chow Mein, String Bean Chicken, and a fortune cookie comes in under 720 calories (and half that with veggies in place of noodles). A Big Mac and medium fries has 920.

Feasting: For when a couple of entrees just can’t fulfill the Panda cravings, a $29 Panda Feast is available, with five large boxes of food to go. Beyond even that, catering is available with menus to feed 16, 24, or 32 people. Makes a change from sandwiches for that monthly meeting.

Bargains and coupons:  One of my favorite holiday gifts this year (yes, seriously!) was my Panda Express calendar with two coupons per month. Coming in March: Free Beijing Beef! Thanks Paul.

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