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Chinese food responses point to Panda Express

One of the queries included in the Get Out blog’s recurring man-on-the-street survey “Nine Easy Questions” is “Which is the best Chinese restaurant in North Idaho?”

Apparently, the question isn’t actually so easy, with most of the responses looking somewhat indecisive and usually rather grim. “Hmm, Chinese. We don’t really go to any of the Chinese places in town. Maybe we should try a couple of them again sometime, but we’ve never found anyplace that we really liked,” complained one respondent.

“If you find a good answer for this, I’d love to know where to go. Both the places in downtown CdA are not bad, but I still think something is missing,” wrote another.

One local food fan got right to the point, saying “I actually think they all stink around here” and a few folks chose just to leave a blank space next to the question, which pretty much says it all.

I don’t necessarily agree with this consensus, but I was surprised and alarmed to see the name that popped up the most as the best local place to load up on fried rice and egg rolls was the ubiquitous fast-Chinese chain Panda Express. To me, that’s a bit tragic and it’s the finest evidence of the real or perceived dearth of fine Chinese cuisine in the vicinity.

It’s like living someplace without a good Mexican joint, where people are forced into naming Taco Bell as the greatest. A Volcano Burrito or Cheesy Gordita Crunch may work in an occasional pinch, and Panda Express isn’t necessarily terrible either, but these options are pretty lame compared to an authentic, unique ethnic dining experience.

The concept for Panda Express was hatched in Southern California during the mid-’80s as a shopping mall offshoot of Pasadena’s popular Panda Inn by China native Ming Tsai Cherng and his family. The idea caught fire faster than a splash of wok oil on an open flame grill, and today there are more than 1,200 Panda Expresses scattered across the land.

People seem to love the clean, colorful interiors, which instead of the usual imagery of the Great Wall and ancient temples, manage to evoke feelings of a sleek, modernist China. One major problem I’ve run into with their food is a severe lack of consistency. With most fast-food places, there’s no mystery involved. A McDonald’s cheeseburger is a McDonald’s cheeseburger in Shibuya, Japan, or Sheboygan, Wis. With Panda Express, quality seems to vary wildly from store to store and from visit to visit. Even at the same location, I’ve had a fully delicious experience one day, only to return a few weeks later to be handed a plate of barely edible steaming muck.

Still, when it’s good, it can actually be pretty good. The trick is to know what you like and stick to it. Entrees can be ordered a la carte, but the usual method is to create a combo plate with your choice of a side dish and one, two or three entrée selections, depending on your inclination and appetite. I usually choose half-mixed vegetables and half-steamed white rice as my side dish. I’ve always found their other two options, fried rice and chow mein noodles, to be extremely bland, and it’s nearly impossible to ruin steamed veggies and plain rice.

The Orange Chicken is traditionally my favorite, and perhaps it’s just a tricky dish to screw up too badly, but I don’t recall ever having been served a bad batch. The magic combination of crispy boneless chicken and spicy sweet orange sauce is fully addictive both flavor-wise and texturally. I’ve also had success off and on with the String Bean Chicken Breast, the Kung Pao Chicken and the Broccoli Beef; however, the latter usually includes huge, tree-size chunks of broccoli that are tasty but somewhat challenging to eat.

The teriyaki-esque Mandarin Chicken also lands on my good list, but I have ended up with a slimy, gristly batch a time or two, so beware. I’ve avoided Panda’s egg rolls since the time I ended up with a suspiciously fishy-tasting specimen, but their Chicken Pot Stickers always do manage to satisfy.

My current favorite, and possibly the most fantastic treat I’ve ever come across at Panda Express, is their new Honey Walnut Shrimp. It consists of fresh tempura shrimp cooked in a light honey sauce and mixed with sweet, glazed walnuts. There’s a delightful, delicate crispiness to the dish, and its divine flavor can’t even be blamed on MSG, as the company claims it doesn’t use the flavor enhancer in any of its items.

All in all, I wouldn’t ever refer to Panda Express as the best Chinese food in this area or any other for that matter. While it does have its perks and is great for satisfying certain cravings without spending a lot of time or money, it’ll never really hold its own against the old-school, nitty-gritty, greasy, magnificently sleazy Chinese food palaces of the world.

Contact correspondent Patrick Jacobs by e-mail at Previous columns are available online at columnists. For more restaurant and nightlife reviews, music commentary and random thoughts and photos, visit his blog at