By Nancy Powell
Long before Panda Express popularized Chinese fast food and the Chinese took the San Gabriel Valley by storm, there was Panda Inn, an American Chinese restaurant started by the very same people who would make Panda Express the Asian equivalent of a McDonald’s. 40 years later, Panda Inn is still around, having expanded to seven locations in the Golden State and with a fresh coat of paint, snazzy new decor and updated menu to boot. And what they do offer might surprise even the most discerning Chinese food gastronome.
I visited the Ontario location of the restaurant on a breezy fall afternoon, waiting to pick it apart for its proximity from the San Gabriel Valley as much as for its relationship to Panda Express. What I find is that the Panda Inn has developed a unique 40th anniversary tasting menu which isn’t necessarily authentic Chinese as much as it is Asian fusion. Let’s face it; California is a huge melting pot of international cuisines. Fusion cuisine should be no big deal, except that it tends to be hit or miss.
Upon entering Panda Inn, I’m led through an arched walkway guarded by bronzed Chinese statues about the height of the average Asian chick. Pathways curl off into separate, adjoining dining rooms adorned in dark woods, burgundy and honey gold decor. There is a big occasion feel to each area, modern touches coupled with a classic Chinese rusticity that charms and beguiles. Flower greets me and sets me on an eight-course odyssey.
The first course out the Blue Crab Salad, an Asian-inspired crab “cake” served atop crispy strips of wonton skins and topped by bright romaine lettuce and microgreens. The dish is refreshingly light and delicate, with the kumquat drizzle adding a hint of acid and bitterness to counteract the sweetness of the crab. Fresh water chestnuts add a layer of texture and crunch. It’s a palate-pleasing combination and a dazzling opener that I couldn’t get enough of.
Next up is the Soybean Vegetable Soup, a milky broth with a pleasing aroma that I appreciate well before it hits the table. Chock full of vegetables—spinach, tomatoes, shiitake mushrooms and sliced corn on the cob—the soup is surprisingly light, but the flavors of the vegetables don’t quite seep into the broth as a complete whole. It’s one of those hit or miss items that might have limited appeal to a vegan or vegetarian crowd, but not so much the casual eater.
The sautéed market Fresh Vegetables drizzled in truffle oil and the Prickly Peppercorn Tofu are the more familiar Chinese-looking dishes from the special menu. The vegetable medley includes starchy lily bulbs, lotus nuts, a variety of mushrooms and crispy snap peas, the goji berries adding mild sweetness. It’s a well-balanced, artfully-presented and thoughtfully conceived dish, full of interesting textures. Prickly peppercorn tofu resembles a traditional mabo tofu in execution; the difference is in the lack of meat, which often adds flavor to this otherwise bland dish, but thankfully, the peppercorns give it some much needed heat.
The best dishes of the evening, however, are one of the last to arrive. According to Flower, the 20 Vegetables Fried Rice never tastes the same at any bite, each spoonful a revolving roulette of textural veggie heaven. The vegetables lend the brown rice a taming moistness and there is a satisfying herbaceousness to the entire dish. Despite its lack of meat, this is one dish that even the most Asian of Asians would appreciate.
Miso-glazed Sea Bass is its own story. This sweet, delicate filet of caramelized flesh is velvety smooth, succulent, a big ticket item worthy of the any fine dining establishment. It is served atop a creamy, mushroom sauce that is good on its own, but feels mismatched under the weight of the fish. Garlic Noodles and the Classic Panda Inn Special (an $18.95 chop suey) feel like a bit of a letdown after the divinely-executed sea bass.
Panda Inn delivers mostly on its fusion promise. If you come expecting real deal Chinese, you’ll leave somewhat disappointed. If you come with an open mind and no expectations, however, you’ll find yourself pleasantly surprised by this “gateway” to the Asian experience.
Panda Inn, 3223 E. Centrelake Dr., Ontario, (909) 390-2888; www.pandainn.com. AE, D, MC, V.