Inside one of Panda Express' test kitchens, the chef that gave the world orange chicken was preparing something decidedly different: a classic regional Chinese dish called "lion's head meatballs."
The recipe plays the rich and delicate texture of ground pork belly against a clear broth and blanched Napa cabbage, curled against the meatballs to look like a lion's mane.
Company executives stabbed at the orbs prepared by Chef Andy Kao with plastic utensils, nodding in approval with each satisfying bite. The dish was ethereal, comforting and reminiscent of the version the chain's founder, Andrew Cherng, ate as a boy growing up in China.
Panda Express customers will never get to try it. That's because Kao and his team were there to reinvent the dish, frying and glazing the meatballs to make it look and taste more like something that belongs in one of the Rosemead company's 1,800 restaurants.
This is how new menu items are often developed at the world's biggest Chinese dining chain: start with a time-honored recipe from the old world and turn it on its head until it achieves palatability at U.S. malls, airports and highway exits where Panda Express is entrenched.
The hope is to score another hit like orange chicken, which the company sold 67 million pounds of last year, accounting for one-third of Panda's sales volume.
"Chains are always going to have their 'greatest hits,' so to speak, but menu innovation is integral to the success of chains such as Panda Express," said Andrew Alvarez, an analyst for IbisWorld, a market research firm. "Consumer preferences tend to shift [and] the consistent and perpetual evolution of Panda's menu has kept it ahead of the curve in this regard."
But even as Kao and his fellow test kitchen chefs try to Americanize regional Chinese classics, they're also starting to take bigger chances — emboldened by the growing familiarity of Asian foods such as Japanese ramen, Korean barbecue and Sriracha hot sauce.
They're also taking a cue from more authentic ethnic chains like Chipotle Mexican Grill Inc. The $4.1-billion fast-casual giant famous for its hefty burritos has introduced a new way of eating Mexican food that's somewhere between a Taco Bell and a roadside taqueria. It also operates ShopHouse, a chain of Southeast Asian-inspired restaurants whose menu features ingredients that are obscure to many Americans, such as tamarind and green papaya.
"When you try to make food all things for all people, you tend to make mediocre food," said Chris Arnold, Chipotle's communication director. Chipotle, he said, aims for a loyal audience rather than a wider one.
Panda Express chefs are now experimenting with bolder ingredients such as fermented black beans, XO sauce and fish sauce in the belief that customers are ready to expand their culinary boundaries.
"Our guests are evolving in their tastes and what they want," said Andrea Cherng, 37, the company's chief marketing officer and daughter of Co-Chief Executives Andrew and Peggy Cherng. "Especially now in terms of the food industry's transformation. We have to elevate our game."
Few companies have as much influence shaping a single cuisine as Panda Restaurant Group, founded in 1983. The business racked up $2.2 billion in revenue last year, nearly doubling in just four years at a time when sales volumes at Asian and Indian restaurants have been stagnant, according to research firm NDP Group.
The chain's popularity endures despite American Chinese food's penchant for being dismissed as cheap and inauthentic.
Panda Express "is one of the great success stories," said Yong Chen, a professor of history at UC Irvine and author of "Chop Suey, USA: The Story of Chinese Food in America." "It is particularly important because it signals the further penetration of Americanized Chinese food into mass consumption."
When a Panda Express dish is a hit like its mushroom chicken, it will start appearing on the menus of mom-and-pop Chinese eateries. Even orange chicken has been flattered by imitation in the form of Trader Joe's frozen Mandarin Orange Chicken.
The company typically introduces two new dishes a year to a menu designed to feature both healthful and caloric choices. There's little margin for error. A new menu item can take between 18 months and five years to develop. Recipes will be tweaked dozens of times, and thousands of people will be interviewed in focus groups and taste panels.
The March release of Panda Express' Chinese spare ribs required a $20-million commitment on ingredients alone. There have been flops in the past, notably the battered and fried Golden Treasure shrimp.
"We invest a lot of time and resources," Andrea Cherng said. "The spare ribs were in development for five years, and I'd wager a guess the meatballs will be more years than that."
Although more traditional Chinese food has made inroads in the U.S., Panda Express can't simply start serving lion's head meatballs, braised chicken feet or mapo tofu, a Sichuan classic noted for its mouth-numbing peppercorns.
"What we have in China won't sell here," said Andrew Cherng, who picked the meatballs for development because the dish makes him nostalgic for his boyhood in Yangzhou, a historic city a few hours drive north of Shanghai. "We have to educate the public so they get the hang of the dish."
One of the early tests took place in March. The subjects? About two dozen students at Janson Elementary School in Rosemead. Panda Express executives wanted to see if the dish appealed to children the same way it did in China.
Each student was asked to rate three versions of the meatball, each made with chicken, which Panda considers a more popular choice than pork. One meatball was put in a broth, much like the original recipe. Another was stir-fried in a sweet, vinegary sauce with basil, red bell peppers and onions. And the last was fried crispy and glazed with a Korean-style barbecue sauce.
"I liked the crunchy one because it reminded me of chips," Kevin Chan, 8, told a Panda interviewer outside a classroom where the tasting was held.
A few hours later, the results were in. The majority of the students favored the sweet, vinegary stir-fry version followed by the fried meatball. The traditional one came in last.
The children were then asked to shout out things that would lure them into a Panda Express more often.
"A live panda!"
Meanwhile, other focus groups were showing lackluster enthusiasm for the dish. "People were saying it was a bit foreign to them," Andrea Cherng said. "They associate meatballs with certain cuisines."
The test kitchen chefs agreed to take a break — two months at least to clear their minds and work on the 100 other dishes in different stages of development.
Finding the winning recipe for the meatball falls mostly on Jimmy Wang, Panda's director of culinary innovation. Kao, the orange chicken inventor, is set to retire soon.
The Taiwan-born Wang has introduced unusual burrito-like wraps to cradle things like chow mein and honey walnut shrimp at the company's Innovation Kitchen in Pasadena, where the public can order some of the test menu items.
"There's a way to make this dish. I just haven't found it yet," Wang, 36, said of the meatballs.
Among the ideas being batted around: making the dish a soup item or a noodle bowl.
"I don't quit. I'm not that guy," Wang said. "This might be my orange chicken."