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Bearable Rightness

Robert Scheer

Chau Line: Panda Inn chef Leng Chau and manager Wynnsome Chau feed healthy appetites with plates of delicious fried prawns and plum wine and other Northern Chinese delicacies.

After more than a decade, the friendly Panda Inn in Aptos shows that it's still playful, spicy and accessible

By Christina Waters

It's not every dining spot that can make its mark in a shopping center location. But the Panda Inn has done so consistently, year after year, as the steady streams of lunch, dinner and in-between-times customers will testify. Since my friend Melody and I had bonded over a meal of Chinese food just about the same year the Panda opened for business, we thought we'd continue the tradition. And since she lives nearby in Aptos, this is one of her neighborhood haunts.

Any small-business entrepreneur can bend your ear for a week over the difficulties of turning a generic mall slot into a distinctive space. The Panda is already ahead of the game with its charming landscaped pathway. Inside, a stroke of genius has turned the interior dining area into cozy little chambers simply by the creative use of hanging bamboo mats. The soft, dreamy glow from round paper lanterns hung from the ceiling does the rest. You've left the ordinary world and its frenzied pace far behind.

This welcome illusion on a blistering afternoon called for a tall, cold Tsing Tao beer--which Melo and I promptly ordered while we checked out the menu. The Panda offers a thoughtful wines-by-the-glass selection, but the weather dictated Tsing Tao, a Chinese beer that--I don't mind stating the obvious from time to time--is perfection with spicy Szechuan food.

The great thing about hot and sour soup, besides the fact that it is easily one of the world's greatest liquid inventions, is that it works its magic as well on hot days as chilly ones. All that white pepper must open the pores or something. Certainly the Panda Inn's particular recipe does everything this great soup should do. It's packed with long chewy strands of succulent cloud ear mushroom loaded with ancient botanical goodness. It's got all the right lotus shoots and egg swirling throughout the potent peppery broth. Scallions and strands of pork emerge here and there. I rank this culinary treasure right up there with crème brûlée and tequila. And it only costs $1 a cup.

Next, we plowed into a platter of potstickers ($4.90), served with a sauce of soy and rice vinegar, to which we added a few splashes of chile oil. The good news was that the succulent crescents of rice pasta were filled with a rich, meaty filling bearing traces of mentholesque Szechuan peppercorn. The bad news was that the bottoms of each potsticker remained closer to raw than to cooked. Other batches of potstickers we've had at the Panda were right on target--these were not so fortunate.

So we moved on to two entrees, which arrived swiftly--very swiftly--on generously filled platters. It's sort of a rule at the Panda that no one leaves without at least one take-home container. Which, as we all know by around lunchtime the day after, is a great concept. My entree of spicy fish with garlic sauce and broccoli (better known as No. 34) was packed with huge chunks of white fish filet, probably rock cod, completely bathed in a garlic-laced, tomato-inflected sauce ($7.70). I scooped out a great mound of the fragrant jasmine rice provided and let the soy and rice wine­enhanced sauce ooze down through the white layers before dipping in my chopsticks. Tiny broccoli florets had been stir-fried just to the al dente point, adding both eye-appeal and texture.

Melody found more satisfaction in a saucy dish of Hunan beef, involving a central island of gingery beef and an encircling bed of crisp romaine lettuce. These texture contrasts are lots of fun for your mouth: the sensuous, smooth beef--all saturated with rich black bean, chile and ginger sauce--and the crisp, cool lettuce. The salty, slightly smoky flavor of fermented black beans is another one of China's great gifts to world cuisine, for which this dish proved a capable delivery system.

The Panda is an unpretentious, friendly place--service is swift and friendly, prices are reasonable, the food is tasty. Lucky Aptos.

The Panda Inn

Address: Deer Park Center, Aptos
Phone: 688-8620
Hours: 11:30am­9pm daily (until 9:30 Fri., Sat.)
Cuisine: Northern Chinese
Ambiance: Cozy Chinese cafe
Service: Swift, helpful
Prices: Inexpensive to moderate
Overall: ** An enduring culinary fixture

****Great, ***Excellent, **Good, *Okay

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From the September 5-11, 1996 issue of Metro Santa Cruz

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