Chinese, not so cheap

I love good Chinese food and I love a bargain, but I’m telling you: Panda Express offers neither. Shortly after the new location of the fast-growing California-based chain opened at 7920 State Line Road, I heard mixed reviews from friends: one calls the chain “Chipotle with egg rolls” and my friend Bob, who doesn’t really like Chinese food, loved it. (Which says volumes).

I like the concept of Panda Express: The restaurants are bright and attractive and super clean, the staff is friendly and accommodating, and the “Panda Pledge” is admirable. The company never adds MSG to meals, they chop their fresh vegetables daily, they use 100 percent soybean oil to prepare the wok-fried dishes and prepare their “unique sauces in-house.”

Those unique sauces do not include the plastic packets of hot mustard, which are manufactured by Oriental Delicacies, a Chicago company. But it’s a nice fiery mustard, which makes the petite cream cheese rangoons — I give Panda Express points for not even pretending to add crab — remotely palatable.

I’ve eaten at the State Line location a couple of times and wasn’t crazy about the food: the nine different entrees can sit on the steam tables for awhile and on both visits, the fried rice I tasted was chewy. Meals are served on paper plates — Chinet, to be exact — and although the company claims to offer “gourmet Chinese food,” that statement is in the eye of the beholder. I didn’t see anything particularly gourmet in the selection of standard Chinese-American dishes: jarringly sweet orange chicken, not-very-peppery black pepper chicken, broccoli beef, sweet-and-sour pork (with the accent on sweet).

A three-entree plate costs $7 and it should be noted that an egg roll or an order of three rangoons count as an entree. Drinks are extra and when all was said and done, even without having to tip, the cost was about the same as a Chinese buffet where diners can go back for seconds or thirds. True, the buffets probably don’t live up to the standards of the “Panda Pledge” (I suspect most of them go wild with the MSG) and the buffet price typically requires a gratuity, but buffets may offer more bang for the yen.

“But you can’t drive through a buffet,” noted Bob. And in Panda Express does offer, for $27, family-style “feasts” with a choice of three large entrees and two large sides; the side dishes are fried or steamed rice, mixed veggies or a pallid chow mein. I’m not convinced one saves a fortune by ordering this way, but yes, fortune cookies are included.

Categories: A&E, Dining