A Panda Express innovation kitchen and tea bar is now open in the Hastings Ranch area of Pasadena. The recognizable panda logo is on the door, but don't expect to walk up to the counter and order a two-item combo in a Styrofoam box. At this new fast-casual concept, customers can order their favorite Panda Express proteins in customizable wraps, salads and stir-fries delivered in classic Chinese takeout containers.
Around 11 a.m. Thursday, a steady line had formed at the counter, where customers were given a quick rundown of the new format. Orange-chicken-filled wraps and salads made their way down the line topped with everything from mango and fried shallots to green papaya slaw.
"If you want to put sweet and sour sauce on your orange chicken wrap, you can do that," said Andrea Cherng, Panda's head of marketing and daughter of founders Andrew and Peggy Cherng. "We just celebrated 30 years at Panda Express and we wanted to think about how we can engage millennials and be relevant without alienating our consumer base."
The new business model involves giving customers the power of customization. People have the option to choose their own base, protein and toppings. Bases include salad, scallion pancake wrap, rice and chow mein. Mains include orange chicken, Beijing beef, honey walnut shrimp, kung pao chicken breast, broccoli, string beans, grilled veggies, stir-fry chicken breast or Angus steak with vegetables, or grilled chicken or steak.
All of the stir-fries are made to order in giant woks. Once you've decided on your dish, you can choose from a selection of sauces that include green onion with ginger, reminiscent of a Hainan chicken sauce, and a fiery red chile Sambal paste. You can also add pickled cucumbers, green papaya slaw, crispy wontons, crispy shallots and crushed peanuts.
Items come in a large size, which includes two mains and a base for $7, or small, with one main and a base for $5.80. You can add as many sauces and condiments as you like, or order one of the specials, such as the orange chicken salad or kung pao wrap.
The location also includes a tea bar, where customers can order teas with fresh fruit, milk teas, ice blended tea drinks and regular tea. And, like any proper tea house in the San Gabriel Valley, you can add boba and customize the sweetness of your drink.
"We had a grand tea master from Taiwan come and design the teas," said Cherng. "He spent two weeks with us perfecting them."
The tea bar is serving cake and pastries from a local baker but will soon start producing its own items.
New decor accompanies the concept, with a rustic communal table in the center of the restaurant. Cloud patterns mimic Chinese pottery design and pops of color are meant to echo the vibrancy of a Chinese kitchen.
"We asked ourselves, what does Chinese American look like?" said Cherng. "We like to think of ourselves as ambassadors of everything Asian-inspired, and Panda is in a position to bring things like boba to people that may have never heard of it."
The company will gradually integrate elements from the innovation kitchen into existing Panda Express locations while the concept is evaluated. If it's successful, Cherng says, Panda will look into opening more locations.
By 11:45 a.m., 90% of the tables in the restaurant were full, and the line was 15 people deep and nearing the door.
3867 E. Foothill Blvd., Pasadena, (626) 351-9128, www.pandaexpress.com/