After a trip, my first meal back in Denver is almost always at Little Panda. Why? For starters, it's always open. Christmas Eve, New Year's Eve, Christmas Day, St. Paddy's: I've never once called the joint when someone wasn't there, waiting (though sometimes grudgingly) to take my order for steamed wontons, fried rice and chicken in various, vaguely Chinese formats. And because of this, Little Panda has also become a welcome-home tradition. Most times, we're on the phone putting in the order before the luggage has even been unloaded — and I've even gone so far as to pick up takeout and bring it to Laura at the baggage claim when I'm meeting her at the airport.
(Fair warning: It's difficult to eat Chinese food at an airport, what with the chopsticks, oddly shaped vegetables and crowds of grumpy, starving travelers, so stick with something easy, like soup.)
And finally, we stay with Little Panda because it's good. Not great, mind you, but better than a Chinese takeout joint in Aurora, Colorado, really has any right to be. Like those dolts who claim that their neighborhood Olive Garden is better than all the other Olive Gardens out there, Laura and I will defend Little Panda against all comers — insisting that, on a good night, its sweet-and-sour chicken is better than the sweet-and-sour chicken done across the street or down the block. I will tell anyone who'll listen that I like the way the kitchen innovates, adding specials like mango chicken and boneless pork nuggets to the already long menu (and not mentioning that these seem to have been the specials every time we've been there over the past three years).
Two trips-back-East ago, we ran up a tab in excess of fifty dollars ordering nothing but appetizers — quarts of steaming, salty wonton soup, shredded pork, fried dumplings, fried shrimp, fried wontons. And last week, we ordered up a spread of garlicky pea pods, golden tofu, steamed dumplings and shrimp in lobster sauce that I always get even though, three times out of five, it's inedibly bland — because those other two times it tastes exactly like the shrimp in lobster sauce I'd get on my birthday at Ng's Fine Chinese when I was a kid. We picked up the food and ate it in our living room, right out of the cardboard containers, using disposable chopsticks and napkins pulled out of our carry-on bags. And more than anything — more than resetting my watch, more than the howling of our neglected cats — it was the taste of Little Panda wontons and squeaky shrimp in an egg-white sauce that made me feel like I was truly home again.
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