Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Panda Express

612 S. Truman
Festus, Mo.
On the Web

Easy pick. Since it sits beside the Walmart in Festus, we knew it was coming. I was actually looking forward to reviewing it, for all the wrong reasons. More on that later. You may know Panda from the many, many mall installations of the brand. The first Panda Express opened in 1983 by the Cheng family. Master Chef  Ming Tsai Cherng had been operating the very popular Panda Inn in Pasedena, California for ten years prior to he and his son, Andrew, opening the first Express in the Glendale Galleria. Pioneers in the 'Quick Service' Chinese food market. Today, there are over 1700 Panda Express locations. All locations are wholly owned by the parent company, there are no franchises.
I was already in Festus, I'd just had my head examined, well part of it anyhow. it was my eyes. Regular readers are aware of my ongoing issues with my eyesight. My eyeglass prescription ran out a few months ago and I've been mentioning (whining) it to Angel for quite a while. She has been encouraging (nagging) me to get some new ones. I, of course, get my optical needs met at Walmart. It turns out that there was a problem with my existing prescription, it was too strong. My eyesight had actually improved, probably due to my lowered blood pressure, cholesterol and weight over the past two years. I went out on a limb with the new frames, they are completely different than anything I've had the last thirty years or so.
Angel had a really busy day so we'd set this plan in place earlier in the week. I'd pop in and order a bunch of stuff, take it home and lay it all out buffet style.
The Place:
As I said, next to the big Walmart in Festus.
Brand new, so 'clean and tidy' was almost a given. The decor was nice, subdued, not plastic-y. As you go in you pass a few tables and step up to the line. The ordering/serving line is in front, glass fronted so pedestrians can't spit or sneeze into the food. The offerings are in steamer trays, much like you'll find at a buffet. Overhead is a menu with prices.
Desteny (yes, that's how she spells it.) stepped forward after welcoming me. I was still studying the overhead when she asked if she could help. I asked her about portion sizes adding the part about the in-home buffet.
She pointed out a combo, a Panda Feast, with three meats and two sides. This feast goes for thirty bucks.
The Food:
I okay'd her suggestion. We started with the meats. Not that there were a lot of them to choose from, compared to a buffet, or even to the nearby family owned Chinese place, Lam's. I went with things that were similar to what we would get at a buffet.
Orange Chicken, Beef Broccoli and Black Pepper Chicken.
The sides were a cinch, Fried Rice and White Rice. (Adam prefers the white.) I surreptitiously added two egg rolls and two orders of cheese rangoons. This brought the total up to thirty nine and change. Desteny asked if I wanted to round it up to forty and donate the change to some sort of children's charity. Sure, I was in a charitable mood.
Behind the serving line was the prep area/kitchen. Part of the Panda philosophy is to let people see the food being made to assure the customers that it was clean and was not made from cats.  I can appreciate that, there's a Springfield Mo. favorite called Cashew Chicken that somehow picked up the nickname Cashew Kitten.
I'm sure no one cooks with cats anymore. . . (I told you I was feeling charitable)
She scooped up the chosen portions into stereotypical red and paper boxes. No wire handles, which  was disappointing since I like totally pointless things.
The egg rolls looked overcooked and the rangoons looked as though they'd been sitting under a heat lamp for an hour or two.
I paid up, grabbed my package and left, racing home to put the stuff in the fridge. . .it was a bit early.
By the time Angel got a break and Adam limped out of his room for the first time that day (he works nights), an hour had passed, but the stuff in the boxes was still pretty warm. I plucked some rice, the two chickens an egg roll and a couple of rangoons out of their boxes and wrapper and populated a plate. I set the reactor two one minute to heat it back up, but not actually cook it further. If a Chinese feast suffers from reheating, it was not real Americanized Chinese food to begin with.
Angel was already feasting, watching Jurassic Park, again. I think that movie is on all the time somewhere, she seems to find it a lot.
I joined her in the adjoining recliner, because that's how we dine at home. Adam joined a couple of minutes later.
The Orange Chicken, PE's biggest seller, was sweet and there was a very slight hint of flavoring, it might have been orange. After two or three nuggets though, the sweetness started to numb my tongue. By the end of the five or so chunks I'd selected, I was queasy. Don't be fooled, it may say 'orange', but this caramelized sticky coating is mostly just sugar. The pepper chicken lived up to its name. Black pepper, lots of it. Too much, by a mile. I could only handle a very small portion. I didn't try the broc and beef but the word I got from both Angel and Adam was "Where's the sauce?" and "I think they forgot something."
The rangoons were a little greasy, not especially crisp and after chewing, there seemed to be a dusty aftertaste. It was as if the wonton wraps were hard frozen and thawed a few times, breaking down the structure of the dough. The egg roll, besides being over-fried, tasted very heavily of ginger. I can't handle that as a primary flavor. If you like heavy handed ginger, you might think more highly of it than I did. The rice was bland. Angel noted that it was too crowded with veggies, especially corn. "Who puts corn in fried rice?" She asked rhetorically, I hope.
As I polled the room, one thing was abundantly clear. No one was really impressed with anything. The highest praise for anything peaked at 'Okay.'
Adam did say, trying to be positive, "It was good for what it was."
In other words, if fast-food quality and service is what you want in your Chinese meal, well, here you go.
First  and foremost, before it gets ugly, the service and staff I encountered at the store were very pleasant, attentive and professional. Desteny was excellent, patiently explaining things to an arrogant and ignorant novice.
Through no fault of anyone in Jefferson County, this place represents a disheartening race to the bottom. This is what fast food joints of this particular generation, regardless of offerings, brings to the gastronomic landscape. Everybody knows that the soggy, flat, lifeless burgers you get in a Happy Meal looks nothing like those McD's ads you see on TV or even in-store banners. . I mean, it's right there!
Fast, cheap, greasy or sweet, turn the customers as quickly as possible, as cheaply as possible. Make every item at every one of the thousands of locations taste exactly the same, no innovation, no tweaking, stick with the lowest common denominator script. Panda Express is to Chinese food what Taco Bell is to Mexican cuisine. It's an embarrassment. It's an admission that we will gladly trade away the idea of  'quality and value' for 'fast and cheap'.
This is the 'value' Panda Express brings to Festus. Within five minutes of this location, I know of at least four more Chinese places, two of them buffets. You can get some really good, fresh(er) Chinese food, just as quickly and definitely for the same price or less. At Panda, I paid $40 for this family feast, I can 'all-you-can-eat-buffet' three people for less than that, in very close proximity.
Come on folks, we deserve better.
BTW, There's a new restaurant going up in the Desoto Walmart parking lot! Taco Bell.  Yeah. . .

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