Panda Inn, an upscale Chinese restaurant chain, has come to Orange County, and this is one panda group not immediately threatened with extinction. Panda Inns are presently enjoying both great success and rapid expansion--this La Palma restaurant is the chain's sixth.
But if this type of restaurant represents the future for Chinese cooking in America, it is not a future I personally look forward to. The problem: Much of the food at Panda Inn lacks character. The dishes aren't exactly bad, but they are seldom ones you want to eat a second time. This is a restaurant where formula ethnic has been defined to a fault, a restaurant where the food often tastes as if it was prepared from recipes devised by a computer.
I must admit, however, that the Panda Inn "computer" is a good decorator. You enter the restaurant through a most impressive lobby. Delicately framed Ming era-style paintings and terra cotta elephant lamps catch your eye, and just a little farther back, there's an ornate bar reminiscent of ancient Chinese temple architecture.
The dining room is not as dramatic--it's more or less a taupe-and-grey box dominated by two giant stained-glass pandas mounted just under the ceiling--but the walls hold museum-like displays of objets d'art such as faded bronze teapots and smoothly sculpted birds. Haunting Oriental music plays softly in the background. And regal-looking mahogany chairs at elegant, white-clothed tables add refined comfort. Savor the image. This is as good as things get here.
For instance, the house fried dumplings, uniformly browned and crispy, look enticing, right up to the moment of consumption. Slice one open, and rivulets of juice run out from the carefully proportioned balls of minced pork inside. But eat one and you'll find they have almost no discernible taste.
Sesame shrimp, flattened and butterflied, also are gorgeous. But there just isn't any flavor. In a blind tasting of these, I wouldn't be able to guess what I was eating.
Not everything is this bad. Minced chicken with pine nuts, eaten from a lettuce leaf cup with the plum sauce usually served with Peking duck, is really very pleasant. Shrimp and shredded pressed tofu soup is a dish in which you can really taste shrimp--even though there are only two or three tiny ones in the bowl.
Order carefully and you may have a pretty reasonable dinner. This means you must forget most of the hot appetizers. Instead, go for cold ones. Wine chicken is soft and flavorful, nicely perfumed with Shanghai-ese rice wine. Smoked fish is sliced pomfret with the scents of wood, anise and garlic mingling oddly, but nicely, together.
You'll do OK with most of the soups too. Pork with pickled vegetable comes closest to being really Chinese, but the hot-and-sour soup is probably the safest choice, with a vinegary tang and plenty of good ingredients like mushroom, pork and bamboo shoot.
But as for the section devoted to combination meat dishes, such as Three Ingredient Tastes (shrimp, sliced chicken and beef, sauteed with vegetables), don't go near it. Also be on the lookout for dishes called sweet and pungent, or ones preceded by the words orange or lemon. They are apt to be hunks of fried cornstarch, with interior slivers of meat rendered unrecognizable by sugary sauces.
Food seems at its best here when it is the simplest. Lamb Hunan-style is trim, tender sliced lamb, sauteed with leeks in a piquant sauce that is hot without being self-consciously so. Boneless duck gets the proper respect it deserves in a fragrant sauce with braised vegetables. Drunken scallops are delightful, a simple saute with rice wine and mushrooms in which the flavor of the shellfish comes through loud and clear. And I liked the restaurant's sauteed spinach, braised string beans, and tofu with brown sauce, all simple dishes with little adulteration. Chefs rarely tailor these types of dishes for American tastes--that's probably why they are a cut above the others.
There are a spate of noodle and rice dishes that I'd recommend in a pinch. Yang Chow fried rice, with tiny bits of chicken, egg, barbecued pork and shrimp, makes a good late supper. Singapore-style rice noodles are sheer and wispy with a piquant curry powder and intense aromatic spicing.
And don't go home without trying mango pudding, a delightfully refreshing iced dessert made from pureed mango. You may even want to eat your fortune cookie, which here is encased in white chocolate and gold foil--it's perhaps the fanciest fortune cookie anywhere. I left mine unopened. I guess I'm just not into glitzy packages.
Panda Inn is moderately priced, and there is a full bar. Hot appetizers are $4.50 to $8.50. Cold appetizers are $2.50 to $36 (for a giant assortment platter). Soups are $4.50 to $12.95. Main dishes are $5.95 to $28. MSG is omitted on request, and several dishes are marked with hearts indicating low levels of fat and cholesterol.
2 Center Point Drive, La Palma
Open daily 11 a.m. to 10:30 p.m.
All major credit cards accepted.