When I was growing up, my family occasionally ate the kind of bland and brown suburban American Chinese food that wasn't very good on its own merits but still had a few redeeming qualities that distinguished it from our daily fare: It wasn't spaghetti or burnt, and it laid the groundwork for a future appreciation of all manner of ethnic or unfamiliar food.
It's true that my family's favorite Chinese restaurant—the Double Dragon in Leominster, Massachusetts—reflected the cuisine of whatever province specializes in French fries, teriyaki, and umbrella drinks, but it also taught this white boy to feel comfortable in the same room with such exoticies as chopsticks, soy sauce, and vegetables. The Dragon's long since been replaced by a sports bar, but a couple times a year I still pay my respects to its memory at any of the scores of similar places nearby.
I recently got to thinking about the Chinese food of my youth when I heard an NPR story about Panda Express, which serves as the gateway to Asian food for millions of Americans who presumably don't grow up near as many low-rent, independent Chinese places as I did (or whose parents are more mall-inclined than mine; no way my dad was going to trade his mai-tai for free parking and an escalator). Panda Expresses have traditionally been housed in food courts and airports and that sort of place, but since 2004 freestanding, drive-throughable ones have been popping up around the country. According to NPR, the company is growing along with American cultural diversity and culinary adventurousness.
The most popular aspect of the Panda Express adventure has long been their Orange Chicken. They sell 60 million pounds of it a year, which works out to roughly one serving per tooth-bearing American. I've never had it, which means at least one of you must be eating two helpings a year; I hope you don't mind that last week I crashed the Panda party to claim my fair share, along with the new Peppercorn Shrimp.
Oh no. I found the Orange Chicken to be a weak cornerstone upon which to build a fast food empire. Fried and sauced things shouldn't be served from a steam tray. You can either fry your chicken and leave it dry, or you can cook it by other means and then wet it to your heart's content. But if you batter it, fry it, entomb it in sweet orange sauce, and then let it wait patiently for the late-lunch rush, you're simply not respecting your poultry or your patrons.
The flavor wasn't awful—predictably over-sweet and under-orange, but with a surprising punch of pepper—but it wasn't enough to cover for the mushy exterior, which also erased any goodwill that might have been engendered by the plump yet firm white meat.
The Peppercorn Shrimp, recently introduced to appeal to a more nutrition-conscious Express eater, was far better. The four medium-size shrimp were firm and fishy, maybe a couple minutes past their prime but perfectly acceptable for a $5 mall entrée. The Thai-inspired sauce was much less sweet than anything else we tried.* Alas, the absence of sugar isn't the same thing as the presence of pepper, and I would have preferred a bit more of a kick—more heat, less acidity—but it was pleasant all the same. The shrimp was tossed with surprisingly firm pencil-thin asparagus and sweet red pepper that had more flavor than the handful of freeloading onion strips.
Ordering at the Panda is a choose-your-sides kind of affair, so we got chow mein and fried rice, which were both better than expected. The rice featured firm, separable grains and good chunks of carrot, though it could have done without the curiously flavorless eggs and desiccated peas. The chow mein was a touch greasy, but the slices of red and green pepper were nice.
Overall, I'm not opposed to Panda Express' expansion, but I'll probably be steering clear of the legacy menu and focusing on the newer, fresher options.
*We also had the Golden Treasure Shrimp, which doesn't seem to be on the menu and isn't worth writing about regardless. It's essentially the shrimp version of the Orange Chicken.