Eating Chinese food has several benefits: It's usually low-cost; if you're lucky the portion sizes are large enough that you can fill up on the first try, with leftovers for an hour later (they're no good after that); and you can always ask for extra fortune cookies, read the messages out loud, and then slap the words "in bed" at the end of each one for its true meaning.
Anyone who says they've never played the "in bed" game with their fortune cookies is a sad, filthy liar. And one of the things I appreciate about Panda Express, a chain that got its start in California close to forty years ago, is that the folks who work there aren't stingy with the after-dinner cookie-missives.
The stand-alone Panda Express at 2990 South Broadway is the biggest, cleanest, nicest one of this chain's store that I've ever seen. I have a general thumb rule about Pandas: The mall stores are small and crappy, the strip-mall stores are slightly bigger and slightly less crappy, and the stand-alone stores are the best to visit.
The decor in all of the Pandas -- including this one -- is goober-bright primary colors, cheesy bamboo stalks and an ambience akin to that of a preschool classroom without the cookies...wait, there are cookies in the kids' meals. The menu is above the well-lit chow line, but after your first trip to Panda, you should be familiar enough with the entrees to order without much thought.
I used to get takeout from Panda twice a week in college, because it was a CCC restaurant -- close, convenient and cheap -- and I actually developed a liking for the nutty honey walnut shrimp, the somewhat healthy eggplant tofu and the saucy Mandarin chicken, none of which I saw at this Panda on this particular visit.
But as I made my way, tray in hands, through the steamy, cafeteria-style line, I saw two new-to-me items: Shanghai Angus beef and peppercorn shrimp, which apparently constitute Panda's "Create your own surf & turf" meal. I got them both, then added a handful of old standbys: orange chicken, mushroom chicken, Beijing beef, a couple of veggie spring rolls, chicken egg rolls and hot & sour soup.
Entrees plates are value-priced for single, double and triple-item plates served with steamed rice, fried rice, chow mein or stir-fried mixed vegetables -- fresh broccoli, zucchini, carrots, string beans and cabbage. Get the veggies, because the white rice is boring, the fried rice usually tastes like seared vegetable oil, and the chow mein has an unholy glut of celery in it.
In the Pro-Panda column is the fact that you get your food right away without waiting, but on the no-Panda list is that sometimes the items you want have been there for a few minutes longer than they should. I've been a foodie victim to arid eggrolls, moisture-less chicken and crusty soups.
But this was a good day: Everything looked fresh except the cream-cheese Rangoon, which I skipped -- although I kept one eye on the open kitchen to see if any new ones would be dropped while I was eating.
Panda's orange chicken is decent for what it is: The nuggets are crispy, sticky, sweet and mildly spicy. The mushroom chicken usually has a satisfying balance of mushroom, tender-crisp zucchini and chicken in a light, savory sauce. But this time, the Beijing beef was a disappointment -- too many bell peppers and onions, the beef was tough and stringy, and the sauce was bland.
The Shanghai Angus beef, however, was surprisingly great -- plus one for better-quality beef. Slices of Angus top sirloin -- toothsome and flavorful, with no gristle -- had been stir-fried with asparagus bits and mushroom slices, and seasoned with a light sauce that tasted vaguely of Worcestershire sauce. The peppercorn shrimp was another good choice, with big-assed, perfectly sautéed shrimp, more asparagus, red bell peppers and bits of white onion in a vaguely Thai-spiced, black pepper sauce.
I am used to Panda's hot-and-sour soup being dull -- skimpy on the chunks and under-seasoned -- and it was, and the veggie spring rolls are always super-dooper-cabbage-heavy. But the chicken egg rolls were stuffed and crisp, and I got lucky when I saw the cooks dumping a freshly fried pile of cream-cheese Rangoon into the bin. The pointed edges were light and snappish, and the soft, creamy middles savory. An order is never enough.
I used to wish that Panda sold the kids'-meal cookies by themselves, and apparently enough people had the same wish -- because now Panda does. The big, soft, calorie-laden chocolate chunk cookie was the ideal end to a meal I wasn't even trying to kid myself into believing was actually healthy.
And then came the best part: The fortune cookie determining my sexual activities. I ripped open the wrapper, broke it down the middle and extracted my small paper fortune. It read, "You will be fortunate in the opportunities presented to you."
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