Photograph by Pete Shea
Count on Us: The Panda Inn's quality ingredients and oversize abacus are a local draw.
Fresh vegetables and attention to detail make the Panda Inn an Aptos standout.
By Denise Vivar
Whenever the subject of my singleton status comes up, my friend Ilana counters with the question: "Why can't you be normal and just get a television like everyone else?" Somewhere in there I'm sure she has my best interest at heart, and perhaps I would be a more attractive package if I came with a high-definition 52-inch plasma screen. These things were on my mind as I stood in the vestibule of the Panda Inn on a recent frosty evening and noted the bags on the counter lined up like boxcars, each one filled with freight destined for someplace warm and inviting. Maybe some place with a comfy couch, a fireplace and several remote controls. And I asked myself if maybe she's right. As other customers—notably all men—streamed in to pick up their waiting cargo, my friend and I took our seats in the cozy dining room. First on order was a hot bowl of soup, and the corn chowder with crab ($6.90 for two) hit the spot. The tureen was filled with more than enough for two people, maybe enough for three or four. The chowder smelled of crab, and indeed there were occasional pink flecks of tender crab meat in the creamy, satisfying chowder.
As we were very nearly the only guests on this night, we enjoyed the full attention of the very friendly and hospitable staff. Our chicken fried rice ($7.90) and egg fu yung ($8.00) were brought promptly to the table following the soup. I really enjoyed the rice, which was lightly fried and not at all greasy or overly seasoned. The bok choy, bean sprouts and peas made for a nice change from the ubiquitous diced-carrot-and-pea mixture found in the usual version. But what made this particular rice dish a standout were the generous slices of chicken breast.
The egg fu yung was the best I've had in recent memory. Several large and lofty omelettes of egg, spinach and green onion were piled on the platter and covered with a blanket of brown sauce. Ever so slightly crisped on the outside and delicately flavored on the inside, these cakes were even great the next day for breakfast. It's called "basic egg fu yung" on the menu, but this is not your basic egg fu yung.
Days later I returned to try a few more of the Panda's creations. I enjoyed a few tidbits for lunch but savored the tasting for dinner, and none was worse for the wear of travel and reheating.
To start, I couldn't resist the barbecue pork buns ($4.50)—three pure white puffs of light and spongy dough with a gem in the center of chopped pork in a deliciously sweet barbecue sauce.
I was curious about the seaweed soup ($6.90) but instead went for the hot and sour soup ($2.90 cup). It is chockablock with mushrooms, streams of egg and bean sprouts as well as surprise bits of chicken in a thick broth with a zippy tang.
Next up was the orange chicken ($9.50). I was impressed with the generous cubes of tender chicken breast, which were modestly battered and fried. The accompanying sauce was sweet and full of orange slices and whole cherries—a combination that worked wonderfully with the chicken. This is also great as a leftover, even cold out of the box without the sauce.
Another of my new favorites is the mushu vegetables ($8.50), with bamboo shoots, bean sprouts, egg, spinach, cabbage, mushrooms and green onion. Although it comes with four lovely thin pancakes and a voluptuous plum sauce, I also found myself enjoying it straight out of the box. Given the quality of the chicken and pork in the other dishes, I think it's safe to say the mushu pork or chicken would be marvelous.
Nothing begs for snuggling like shorter days and colder nights, and not much weathers the hazards of the take-out box quite like Szechuan cuisine. But even if you don't have your own personal runner or a big-screen TV, the Panda Inn is more than worth the effort of getting off the couch and out the door.
THE PANDA INN
Address: 5 Deer Park Center, Aptos
Hours: Open daily 11:30am-9pm
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