The Best Food to Order at Panda Express

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[Photographs: Drew Lazor]

WebMD, the Internet's most trusted source for deeply paranoid self-diagnosing adults, offers no information on "Pandamonium," the trademarked phenomenon Panda Express implores its customers to experience each time they queue up at the scoop-and-serve Chinese-American chain.

As much as I'd like to believe it's a stylized synonym for the euphoria one feels when presented with piles of orange chicken and fried rangoons filled with cream cheese, a perusal of the restaurant's official website suggests a more insidious force of alpha-predator nature is in play. Those big black-and-white fluffers are going to get sick of gnawing on bamboo eventually, and when that happens? Dawn of the Planet of the Pandas:

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What's the best protection we can take up against Pandamonium-stricken bears ready to feast on kung pao-style us? Familiarizing ourselves with their headquarters. That's why we've put together this guide to surviving the impending pandapocalypse, starting with how to order at Panda Express.

The Express, long the most dominant brand in Chinese-American quick-serve, grew out of Pasadena, California's Panda Inn, a sit-down entrepreneur Andrew Cherng launched with his chef father, Ming-Tsai (not that one), in 1973. In the three decades since that flagship pushed off, the billion-dollar brand has ballooned to more than 1,600 locations, the lot of them still controlled by Central Panda Command.

There are standalones, drive-thrus and even fancy experimental locations that look like buildings from Rocko's Modern Life. But the lifeblood of the brand has always been the food court—their second-ever location opened in the Glendale Galleria in '83—and chances are a mall near you has got one to call its own.

It's common to find a line at popular Panda Express locations, but the steam-table setup and conscientious workforce allows them to crank it. It's rare to experience shoddy service—the "associates" always smiling, with plenty of toothpicks at the ready to pass out sample bites—so don't sweat that. Focus your energy instead on minimizing risk by maximizing your point-and-order power.

The Fried Stuff

These are a hallmark of any Chinese buffet, and Panda's no exception. Availability varies, but I tend to see chicken egg rolls (bumpy wrapper), vegetarian spring rolls (crispy wrapper), fried shrimp, and cream cheese rangoons on the regular. Go for both rolls, as they tend to hold up a little better against time, fried food's mortal enemy.

The Sides

Panda sells items à la carte, but most customers opt for the "create your plate" combo option, with either two or three mains and a side, all piled into a styrofoam container with the heft of an Olympic shot put. Options include several types of rice; chow mein, tossed with celery, onions and cabbage; or mixed steamed veggies. The fresh-cut vegetables, typically crisp, are obviously the wisest nutritional choice here, but you already know you're not doing that, so I suggest opting for the simple fried rice. It's a popular pick, meaning it's replenished often, which will also save time if they don't have white or brown rice at the ready. The noodles, meanwhile, can get a little dry in the steam table.

The Mains

This is a little tricky, since the options vary from day to day and Panda to Panda.* The logical place to start, however, is the dish that made this place what it is: orange chicken, battered and wok-tossed in that familiar sticky tangy sauce. Since they go through literally millions of pounds of this stuff annually, it's always replenished in big batches, so it's a good bet in terms of freshness. For a small upcharge, they also offer a version with bits of bacon. It's up to you, and only you, to look deep within yourself and decide if that is something you want on your conscience.

* Idea: Panda 2 Panda, an animated comedy featuring Kevin James and Benicio del Toro as panda detectives from opposite sides of the planet. Working as a team, they can crack the big case—if they don't kill each other first!

That particular chicken is definitely Panda's biggest hit, but there are other trustworthy pollo options, too—a peanutty kung pao that's sold as spicy (it's not); an inoffensive breast meat-bell pepper-pineapple situation called "SweetFire," which sounds like a drug people take on Game of Thrones. (Skip the shiitake-kale chicken; I know kale is super-cool but the texture gets a little weird when it sits.) As for beef, the "Beijing-style" dish, with shreds of meat wokked with peppers and onions, is a popular and reliable pick.

Seafood and tofu is the tertiary entree category at Panda Express, and it's the one you should approach with the most skepticism. It's not that the gloopy-mayo honey walnut shrimp is bad—it's just a more volatile protein for a mall setup, as is the North Atlantic cod and the stir-fried bean curd, none of which hold up too well in the steam table.

But there you have it: your own Pandamonium defense plan, and one that should help you out at plenty of other food court Chinese shops and all-you-can-eat buffets.

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