Tonight I finally tried out a spot that I’ve been curious about for a few years. By it’s name alone, Panda Restaurant, I was pretty certain it was a Chinese restaurant. It’s located in the Bel Air shopping center on Foothills at Main/Baseline. I’ve driven by it several times while leaving the center and couldn’t tell much about it from the outside. My family met up here for dinner at about 6PM.
The shopping center was fairly busy when I arrived with my grandmother, but there was plenty of parking near Panda. Just inside the door is a little divider wall that we rounded to find the rest of our party, already seated around a six-seater circular table. As we sat down the server asked us if we would like anything to drink. I just went with a water for the moment. As he went to get that I skipped to the back of the clearly old and a little ragged menu (PDF of the takeout version) to see what the beverages situation looked like. It was very basic, sodas, tea, a small domestic and import selection of beers. I ended up not ordering anything and just stuck with the water. Everyone had pretty much already decided what they wanted to eat by the time I arrived, and almost all were ordering from the “Special Combinations Plate for One” section, so I picked something from there as well. The rest of the menu looked to be in line with Roseville’s other major Chinese restaurants both in variety and price ($7-9 for most dinner items). The sever was back soon and everyone put their order in while I finalized my selection. Each combo plate comes with a choice of egg drop soup or hot & sour soup, an egg roll, cheese wonton, pork fried rice and vegetable chow mein. I picked orange chicken and went with the egg drop soup.
Just a few minutes later our soups came out. This egg drop was pretty decent overall. It was not insanely hot and was sippable right away, which I like. The usual suspects, corn and bits of carrot, were found in it. It wasn’t mind blowing, not that any other egg drop I’ve ever had was. It was pleasant and that’s all that needs to be said. I was still in the middle of my soup when our other appetizers arrived. The egg roll was of the very, very flaky variety. I cut mine in half with my fork to see if I could get a photo of the inside. As you can see just behind the half roll, a pile of crispy flakes was the aftermath. I’m a texture guy so I enjoyed this more than I probably should have considering the contents, which were a little boring. In fact I’m not really sure what was in it beyond some lettuce. The cream cheese wonton was pretty good. Crispy edges and warm, gooey cream cheese in the center. It’s hard to argue with that.
Barely five minutes after the appetizers were delivered, the entrees were being brought out in twos. My brother had ordered a dinner entree, the Szechuan String Beans (string beans sauteed in hot spicy sauce)[$6.95] and added tofu. I tried a string bean and it had a nice, immediate kick to it with some excellent flavor to back it up. The beans still had a little bit of snap to them as well. My mom had the Sweet & Sour Chicken (battered, deep-fried chicken, onions, carrots and pineapple chunks, served with sweet and sour sauce)[$8.95] combo plate. It was a giant amount of food. This was the case for each combo. I had a bite of the sweet & sour chicken. By itself I think it might have been pretty good, flavor-wise, but compared to my dish it seemed weak. The chicken, interestingly, was a bit on the dry side. I say that because the chicken I had from two other dishes on the table were very much the opposite. My brother’s wife had Cashew Chicken (chicken sauteed with zucchini, celery, baby corn, bamboo shoots, water chestnuts and cashews in brown sauce)[$8.95], which I thought was pretty tasty. The chicken was very tender and in a non-spicy, savory sauce.
As with all the others, my orange chicken combo plate (lightly battered chicken sauteed with hot pepper and orange peels) [$9.75] was huge. I’m glad it was because I was starving. The first thing I dug into was the chow mein, which was very hot, fresh and downright delicious. Definitely near the top of my list. So many places can’t seem to figure out good chow mein, and knowing that, it can be frustrating to order at times. The rice was also hot. It was dark and pretty flavorful for fried rice, but after a few bites I found the flavor to be kind of one-dimensional and I lost interest in it. Next to it was the big pile of very hot, intensely rich flavored orange chicken. The pieces were pretty big, a little bigger than a comfortable bite would be. I ended up cutting many in half with my fork (I suppose I should note that a fork was the only utensil we were given. Perhaps they have knives on request). The batter was very crunchy and was soaked in the dark, brownish-orange sauce. It only had a hint of orange flavor to it, though I did find tiny slices of orange rind here and there. It was much more of a rich, somewhat thick, savory soy sauce with a bit of sweetness underneath it all. It was by far the hottest thing on the plate and had to abort my first bite right before committing to it when I realized how much heat it was throwing off. The rice regained some life when I used it to soak up the excess orange chicken sauce which had pooled up underneath the pile of chicken pieces.
As far as the food went I was pretty happy overall. The rice was a little boring, but paired up with the extra sauce was quite good. My mom said she liked her sweet and sour chicken, but after trying everything I’d say it was the weakest item at the table. The portions were very, very good for the price. Most of the plates didn’t even look like they had a dent in them. I was the only one to polish off my plate, I told you I was really hungry :). Service-wise they were OK at best. There was an extended period towards the end when I really needed a water refill and he just wasn’t making his rounds through the dining room. Aside from that, the service we did receive was minimal.
I think this is probably a very solid lunch spot, where you’re in and out relatively quickly with little need for the typical full-service dinner experience. Perhaps that and take-out are the strengths here.