Some years ago, I was introduced to the Plum Tree Inn in Los Angeles' Chinatown by a favored cousin whose action assured that her photograph always will maintain a hallowed place in my family album.
It was at the Plum Tree Inn that I first tasted Plum Tree beef, a preparation as subtle, savory and sensuous as any produced by a Chinese kitchen. The Plum Tree Inn thus became an automatic--and greatly anticipated--stop on every trip I made to Los Angeles, as it did for those friends whom I, in turn, introduced to this marvelous eatery and its most stellar dish.
There were two main problems with Plum Tree beef: as is so often the case, it never again tasted quite so wildly wonderful as memory insisted that it had the first time around, and, of course, the only place to find it was at the Plum Tree Inn, which was not convenient for someone who lived in San Diego.
The corporation that owns the Plum Tree Inn and several other L.A.-area Chinese restaurants kindly has solved the second of these problems by opening the Panda Inn at Horton Plaza, a fine, sophisticated establishment that offers Plum Tree beef as one of many excellent specialties. Although the Panda Inn has been in operation for just a few weeks, it seems quite safe to say that it already has assumed the leadership of our local corps of Chinese restaurants, not merely because of its cuisine, but because of its unusually high levels of service and physical comfort. (The Panda Inns in Santee and Clairemont, which also are rather good restaurants, are not related to the Panda Inn at Horton Plaza.)
The Panda Inn is the latest tenant to move into the restaurant row that lines Horton Plaza's top deck. Like its neighbor, The Grand Tour, it offers a back dining room that features a wide-open view of the west side of downtown, but its other rooms have their own selling points. This is not the stereotypical Chinese eatery of yesteryear; instead of ceilings hung with paper lanterns and garish dragons dancing across the walls, Panda Inn discreetly displays a few good examples of Oriental art hung on walls painted in the pastel shades that have become de rigeur for Southern California restaurants. The interior architecture, with its eye-catching, geometric lines, also suggests the Orient, in a way that could be called Chinese Style Moderne.
One of the greatest thrills here is the service, which is almost French in style; the waiters, for example, use two spoons, in the French manner, to transfer servings of food from the platters to the diners' plates. The waiters are also civil, respectful and patient, unlike many of the servers who populate this city's Chinese restaurants, and (wonder of wonders) the Panda Inn even has a maitre d' who will stop by the table to explain dishes and suggest ways to compose an attractive menu.
Now for the Plum Tree beef, a dish that first lays siege to the mouth but then quickly seduces it with an irresistible array of tastes and textures. This dish is something of a group experience for the mouth, since it brings tongue, palate and all the taste buds into action; each finds something different to savor in this blend of sweet, salty, pungent, aromatic and peppery flavors, with textures both rough-hewn and silky. The meat is cut into fairly thick slices and braised until tender, then coated with a light batter and fried until golden and crisp. When ready, it is returned to the wok and toss-fried again with dried tangerine peel (for aroma and bitterness), scallions, fiery black paper peppers (these should not be eaten), honey and other flavorings. The sauce is smooth and unctuous, the meat moist yet crunchy, and the flavor as rich as the greediest Mandarin's dreams.
The Panda Inn offers a very long menu at dinner (and a shorter, yet still attractive, list at lunch) that begins with a rather standard selection of hot appetizers but comes into its own with the cold hors d'oeuvres. Among the hot offerings, the steamed dumplings are outstanding, particularly because they are cooked in a steamer lined with cabbage leaves, which endows them with a little extra flavor. Dip these in a self-prepared sauce of chili oil, gingered vinegar and soy sauce, varying the proportion of chili oil to suit your own tolerance for heat.
The cold appetizer list includes the more traditional savory starters of Chinese cookery (often called wine accompanying dishes because they go well with rice wine), such as jellyfish, likable for its superbly crisp texture; spiced Chinese cabbage, a meatless but meaty-tasting dish that takes the chill off a cold day, and aromatic beef, a rich preparation of spiced meat that shares certain qualities with corned beef.
The soup list offers 10 choices, most based on seafood. The seafood chowder honors the American soup in its name, but is otherwise solidly Cantonese: chopped scallops, abalone, shrimp and snow crab swim in a delicate broth that has been lightly thickened with corn starch and beaten egg.
The best places to search for entrees, at least for first-time guests, probably would be on the front specialties page and under the vegetable heading. Although the Panda Inn offers many spicy (especially Szechuan) dishes, it also knows how to prepare a good selection of the mild Cantonese dishes that first made Chinese cooking popular in the West.
One of these, the subgum fried wonton, sounds rather like an appetizer, but the crisp, meat-filled wonton pastries only serve as a texture contrast to the mound of sliced shrimp, chicken, beef, barbecued pork and vegetables that form the centerpiece of the plate. A fine, light, succulent brown sauce coats this melange of meats and greens. Also on the Cantonese side is the lemon chicken (scallops may be had in this fashion), made up of boned breast meat fried in a crunchy coating and bathed in a smooth, thick sauce flavored with little more than fresh lemon juice. It is a mild, refreshing dish.
Outside the Muslim north and certain remote regions of the country, lamb is not widely eaten or liked in China. The Panda Inn offers one fine lamb dish, however, lamb Hunan style, that mixes tender slices of meat with leeks in a good brown sauce that, despite its burden of peppers, is mild rather than hot. The dish gains much of its flavor from dried, salted soybeans, which lend an agreeable pungency and bitterness and--interestingly enough--more than a hint of coffee flavor.
Among the various vegetable dishes, the spicy eggplant braised with slivered pork is especially good. Also worth a try is a preparation of baby bok choy (these diminutive, cabbage-like greens are imported from China, where they grow during the winter under a coverlet of snow) cooked with meaty Chinese mushrooms. PANDA INN
Horton Plaza, downtown San Diego.
Open seven days, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m., 11 p.m. weekends.
Credit cards accepted.
Dinner for two with a glass of house wine each, tax and tip, $25 to $45.