With a bright orange, red and purple exterior, not to mention an adorable panda logo over the front door, Panda Express looked promising on a recent weekday.
The sun was shining, the sky was blue, a cool breeze was blowing and outdoor tables awaited. The sign over the door also advertised “gourmet” Chinese food.
The Apple Glen restaurant was crowded at lunchtime, and there were lots of little kids; it must be a favorite place for families to go. I couldn't help but notice a big mess on the floor at a couple tables that hadn't been cleaned up. Rice isn't the easiest thing for toddlers to eat.
At Panda Express, you go through a line to order your food, pay at the end and fill your own soda fountain drinks. My companion, a semi-regular at Panda Express, and I both felt as if we were being herded through the line. I got the impression the employees are often told to smile! Smile! — when they'd rather be telling us to hurry along. I guess that's to be expected at a fast food joint, and that's really what Panda Express is.
You can see the entrees and sides while you're in line, and the dishes are labeled on the sneeze guard, but it's difficult to decide what you want quickly, especially if you're not familiar with the food.
But we managed. I ordered a two-entrée, one side dish deal, with my choices being kung pao chicken, chicken and mushrooms, and fried rice. I also tried a chicken egg roll. My companion ordered orange chicken (she says that's what Panda Express is known for) Mandarin chicken without the sauce, and chow mein.
We ordered our food “to-go” so we'd have take- home boxes even though we were eating there. We were lucky enough to score an outside table.
Before my friend dove into her bowl, I had a bite of the orange chicken and, I'll admit, I wished I had ordered it. Small pieces of tender chicken were enveloped in a thick breading and coated in a sweet red sauce with just a hint of heat.
It was really good; I can see how it became the chain's signature dish. My friend said sometimes it's served with a little too much sauce, but it was about perfect the day we were there.
I also liked the kung pao chicken. In addition to diced chicken, the dish had big chunks of zucchini, plus red and orange bell peppers, cooked crisp-tender. The veggies absorbed the heat and flavor of the sauce. It was sprinkled with a few peanuts and green onions. Be on the lookout for hot peppers; I had one in mine.
My friend also gave me a bite of the mandarin chicken, which I found to be a bit rubbery, and lacking in flavor without the mandarin sauce.
It was hard to form an opinion on the mushroom chicken, because it got mixed in with the kung pao chicken. The chicken was flavored with a mild ginger-soy sauce, which paled in comparison to the spicy kung pao chicken. In addition to sliced mushrooms, the dish also incorporated the delicious sliced zucchini.
The chicken egg roll seemed as if it had sat under a heat lamp too long. I took a couple bites but didn't even finish it.
We split opinions on the fried rice. My friend liked it because it was fluffy, not sticky. To me, it just didn't seem the consistency of something actually stir-fried in a wok. Too dry. Bits of egg, diced carrots and peas helped the flavor a little for me; however I sat and watched as my friend meticulously picked out every pea from hers.
We finished our meal with fortune cookies, of course. That was a disappointment to my friend, whose fortune cookie was smashed and stale, even though it was served inside a plastic wrapper.
I had well over half my meal left when I finished, but instead of bringing home the leftovers I pitched them in the trash. The food is OK at Panda Express, but if I'm going to eat Chinese in the future, I'd rather spend the time and money to go to a bona fide sit-down Chinese restaurant than settle for Chinese fast food — even if it is billed as “gourmet.”