Guest Post: Panda Express Innovation Kitchen and Tea Bar

You’re all in for a massive treat today. My friend Justin, who used to write one of my favorite food blogs of all time, has shared a recent experience of his for my blog. All I can say is…come back to the interwebs, Justin. We need more good photos. We need more burger mashups. And I can say with confidence that we ALL need more orange chicken burritos: 
For a few years after my parents were first married but before I came along, they would go to parties in the Pasadena area where Chinese food was served. A young man named Andrew would show up with all the ingredients and get to work in the kitchen cooking up dinner. He had just opened up a restaurant on Foothill Blvd called Panda Inn.When my mom tells the stories, she makes it sound like she was in the kitchen helping Andrew out, maybe suggesting recipes or showing him egg roll-making tips. My dad’s memory of the parties is far more boring but much more realistic: “I don’t think Andrew even knew my name.”In 1983, Andrew came up with the idea to sell his food in quick-serve format in the Glendale Galleria. He called it Panda Express. Today, Panda Express has 1700 restaurants all over the country, in malls, airports, baseball stadiums and shopping centers.

Also today, Andrew is estimated by Forbes to be worth more than three billion dollars. That’s billion with a B. Needless to say, Andrew no longer shows up and cooks at the kind of parties my parents attend.

In an obvious play to establish a new Panda model comparable to the massive success of Chipotle, a new restaurant opened a few months ago called Panda Express Innovation Kitchen and Tea Bar. In an homage to the first Panda Inn, it’s just a few blocks down the street on Foothill. It also happens to be just four blocks from the house in which I grew up.

But I didn’t plan to visit, because here’s the thing: I am not a fan of Panda Express. I just don’t think it’s that good. Sure, it tastes okay… but so do most things if you put the amount of sugar and salt on them that Panda uses. Off the top of my head, I can think of at least six independent Chinese restaurants in Pasadena that I think are much better.

But there is one occasion for which Panda Express always hits the spot with me: A hangover. I was back in Pasadena for the Summer Solstice, visiting with some old friends, and I drank way too much. The next day I awoke with my worst hangover in years. I headed to Panda.

You can choose to get your food in a salad, in a bowl, or in a wrap (basically a scallion tortilla). I opted for the wrap. Just like at every other Panda, you select whatever you want. Except with a lot more options.
First up, I asked for lettuce, carrots and scallions.
Then orange chicken.
And Beijing beef.
And slaw, pickled cucumbers, and crispy shallots.
So how was it?
Well, it’s Panda Express. Almost every medium-size city has at least a couple Chinese joints better than Panda, but something about the orange chicken is oddly comforting. Maybe it’s a throwback to those days when my high school used to bring it in for lunch, or maybe it’s just the fact that the sugar and salt always seems to alleviate my hangover, however briefly.
I do have to say that the egg rolls with the spicy sambal sauce is a winning combination. All Panda Express locations across the country would do well to start serving this.
But as for the name “Innovation Kitchen”? I guess if throwing their ingredients into a salad or a tortilla is innovative, the name kinda makes sense. But overall it wasn’t quite what I was expecting it to be.
There is, however, one thing about the place that I DO think is pretty cool:
In the back of the house is a tea and dessert bar, with some comfortable, oversized chairs and flatscreen TVs showing sports. I had an iced black tea that was delicious and a strawberry mochi that was awful.
Like I wrote earlier, I don’t really expect this format of Panda Express to take off. I could see them trying it out in a few other locations around the country, but I don’t think Chipotle needs to start worrying about losing market share.
I don’t think I’ll ever go back… well, until my next wicked hangover. So probably this coming weekend.

The Great Noodle Tour: Sukiyabashi Jiro

This is the post that I can’t believe I’m writing.

It’s also the post with no photos.

It’s the post about my meal at Sushibayaki Jiro.

eel

You may have heard of this small sushi restaurant in a subway station…it had a little film made about it?

Anyhow, we went there when we were in Tokyo.

Make no mistake, this was the most expensive 90 minutes of our life.

But was it our best?

To begin, the doors don’t open until precisely 11:30 am – the only time that we were allowed to make a reservation, though our hotel concierge. Until then, we queued nervously and made sure that we had followed the rules that had been emailed to us:

Sukiyabashi Jiro Note;

* Please kindly note that all restaurants are strict on punctuality.

*If you would like to cancel, please let us know as soon as you decide.

*Please be noted that they strictly apply 100% cancellation charge.

If you cancel 2 days before your reservation date and a penalty 15,000 yen per person applies.

* Strictly NO perfume/ cologne is allowed at the counter seat.

*No T-shirt, NO-sandales(sic).

*If you are late for dinner, you need to contact to the hotel at least 30 minutes before. They lay all food items for the time of your arrival.

 obviously, I wore my Sunday best and took VERY FEW photographs because our sweet hostess was careful to point out that Jiro does not like when people take pictures

Note: I know that there are photos of this meal all over the internet. What can I say? People are just braver than I am. I didn’t want to offend anyone. Thus, I didn’t take any pictures and if my husband hadn’t snuck a couple with his iPhone, we wouldn’t have had any at all.

We sat down and were jointed by 2 other people at the sushi bar. Behind the bar was Jiro and a sous-chef. It was almost shocking to be seated in front of him in the quiet, elegant room. He barely made eye contact as we sat down and were presented with our menu for the day.

Then, we were served.

By Jiro himself. One by one, he made the pieces for each of the 6 patrons at the restaurant during our mealtime. Women were served first, then men. And the parade of food was excellent.

Insanely fresh tuna, from ruby red and lean to the almost white fatty tuna.

Meaty, mild horse mackerel with a zip of spicy wasabi

Tender clam in a sticky-sweet teriyaki sauce.

Boiled prawn so sweet and snappy that it could be served for dessert

Uni from Hokkaido – doubtlessly the greatest uni of my life. Lush, cold, sweet, delicate…incredible.

Soft and meaty eel with just a glimmer of sugary lacquer

Rich but light tamago, layer upon layer of softly folded and steamed egg atop rice.

Then, when the meal at the sushi bar was finished, we sat at a booth and finished with the sweetest, juiciest melon that I have ever enjoyed. It should really be called cotton candy melon. You have to eat it with a spoon to sop up all of the juices.

The meal was 90 minutes from beginning to end. It was, no doubt, the most expensive 90 minutes of my life. But was it worth it?

Well, it is very difficult to get reservations. There are many rules that you must follow. Jiro himself is a very serious, efficient sushi master and he isn’t one for chatting during the meal. We couldn’t even take picture with him before or after because he was so busy for the rest of the day and couldn’t, or wouldn’t, veer off schedule. The sushi itself is excellent – but is it the best? Well, no. Nakazawa is actually better, in my humble opinion. The rice at Jiro is extremely vinegary and though the fish is sublime, except for the uni, I wouldn’t say that it’s better than what I enjoyed at Nakazawa. That super tangy rice was rather distracting and the lack of interaction with Jiro-san himself meant that I didnt’ know how or if the fish was prepared/aged.

And did I mention that it was expensive?

However…on the upside…this was worth it. Why? Because it is a meal one of the hardest-to-reserve restaurants in the universe. Because it felt unspeakably cool to be ushered into the restaurant while others were taking pictures of the facade. Because I ate sushi for an hour made by none other than Jiro himself. It was a once in a lifetime experience.

Would I recommend it? If you want the best sushi in the world – no. Next time, I hope to try Sawada.

But if you want some incredible sushi in an atmosphere that is unrivaled to my knowledge – yes. This is the place for you.

tamago

And I will continue to dream about it.

The Great Noodle Tour: Eating in Arizona

Some miscellaneous Arizona eats:

20150419_113848 Elements breakfast at The Sanctuary.

This beautiful hotel has a fabulous poolside restaurant. The huevos rancheros is excellent. Eggs are properly rich and buttery, salsa is smoky but not too spicey, and the guac is REALLY great.  20150419_113218 To say nothing of the huge, pecan studded stickly buns smothered in tangy cream cheese frosting. Me want. A lot.
20150419_112101 The atmosphere is really nice, too. Arizona dreamin’. 
20150418_223116 Steak at m wedding, REALLY well cooked, especially for a buffet!  20150418_164258 Pei Wei

 My FAVORITE fast food from college. Dan Dan noodles, I miss you, so! 20150418_152929 Excellent room service from The Sanctuary. The food here is top notch – don’t miss the very cheesy and garlicky Caesar salad or the juicy turkey burger with fresh cut fries.  20150418_012224 No trip to the West Coast is complete without a loaded In-n-Out burger.

20150419_180220

Phoenix airport snack from Humble Pie

20150419_180248 Pretty nice underskirt and tender dough but…
20150419_180214 Meh. No real flavor in the crust, no salt in the sauce, and no stretch in the cheese. I have become a pizza snob – what can I say?

Next up: a little NYC interlude.

The Great Noodle Tour: Peking Duck at Wei Jing Ge

The last night of our stay, we ate at our hotel’s restaurant, Wei Jing Ge.

We had early flights the next morning. We were tired from sightseeing all day. And we wanted some Peking duck before we left China. Wei Jing Ge delivered on all counts.

20150428_065257 Pardon the dark photographs – the restaurant is very elegant (though quite empty) and it’s dark. I couldn’t put my flash on without being “that ugly American.” This is a great place for a client dinner or an elegant night on the town with a loved one.  20150428_065304-001 Or a family who is about to travel 17 million hours across the ocean soon.  20150428_065310-001 Beautiful Chinoiserie place setting.  20150428_072140-001 Crispy pork belly served with sugar and mustard

That’s right sugar and mustard! You dip the pork into the mustard first and then just a touch of the sugar. The result is a granular, spicy, sweet marinade that you will soon be eating off of your fingers. It’s awesome. So is the pork belly. The meat is firmer than I’m used to and with a more distinctively barnyard-y, hay taste. It’s like wild boar – I love it. The fat is only rendered on top – a golden, crispy, sharp crackling – so if you don’t like that squishy fat feeling of un-rendered fat, this won’t be for you.

Again, I love it.  20150428_072554-001 Sauteed Chinese greens with ginger

You might think that this is bok choy, but you would be mistaken. Our lovely server told us that there is no English name for this Chinese green which is sweeter, more tender, and much less fibrous than bok choy. With some ginger, it’s an excellent palate cleanser to a meat-heavy meal.  20150428_072558 Honey-lacquered bbq pork

I’ll just let you guess how melting, tender, juicy, soft, and sweet this was.

Yeah, it is practically dessert. 
20150428_073253 Spicy sesame noodles 20150428_073447-001 Oh, get the hell out of here, NYC delivery guy. This is such a far cry from the crap on Seamless. These noodles are bouncy, wheaty, airy enough to soak up the sauce. The sauce is salty, sweet, nutty, almost meaty. It’s complex and scattered with scallions and bits of sweet sautéed garlic. It’s just…wow. The dreamiest noodles I had on the entire trip.  20150428_074747-001 Peking duck

I wish that I had a better video or photograph of this. This Peking duck…damn. First of all, the whole duck is carved down to, what must be, an ounce per person of meat and fat. You look at it and you’re like…wow, is this the diet portion? Then you eat it and you’re like, wow…I won’t be able to finish this. And you aren’t. You are served meat with skin that is juicy, tender, and covered with sweet skin. You are served plain skin that is sharp and sticky, crackly and potato-chip-y in the best way possible. You layer them all in pliable pancakes topped with cucumber, scallions, chilli, and hoisin sauce. You think about how this is the greatest duck you have ever had.  20150428_074943-001 You eat these little tacos until you can no longer imbibe.  20150428_085720 You finish off the meal with the world’s greatest coffee frappe at the hotel’s famed Long Bar. It used to be that the people with the highest social status sat closest to the window and those who were still climbing the ranks sat toward the other end of the bar.

This meal is worthwhile no matter where you are staying. It’s on the pricier side of Shanghai dining, but with that price comes air conditioning, excellent service, and a memorable dining experience.

The Great Noodle Tour: Shopping in Shanghai

Japan doesn’t have all of the shopping fun. China has its own charms and wonder.

20150426_033628 The city of Shanghai loves to eat. Tons of snack shops and stalls on every corner.
20150426_034257 Including a thousand different lemonade varieties, each worse tasting than the last.  20150426_034306 Including a hot tea option topped with cheese.  20150427_005831 Eating, eating, eating.  20150427_020715 These creepy toys which I learned are called Monchicis…wow, so frightening.
20150427_021231 A million snacks which ranged from unappealing to vomit inducing. I will just never be into dried fish.
20150427_021248 Love these photos of Shanghai Girls on the drie fruit.  20150427_024629 Dried chicken feet in the convenience store. Yeah, you’re in CHINA. 
20150428_011834 These funny little cartoon girls advertising adult shampoo.  20150428_012119 Nori snacks rolled like fruit rollups.

20150428_013302 Black chicken and chicken with head and toes intact. 
20150428_013330 Langoustine and shrimp varieties ranging from the size of a needle to almost lobster like mammoths. Some came as far as Madagascar.  20150428_013356 Tiny quail eggs and huge goose eggs.

20150428_013445 No comment. Love it.  20150428_013525 American hot wings flavored Doritos! Why don’t we have these, just called “hot wings?” 20150428_013545 Gotta love an aisle of puffed foods. 
20150428_013857 I doubt I would use an aisle filled with spicy duck tongue and sauced duck neck.  20150428_014020 Love the packaging.
20150428_014931 Adorable buns filled with pork floss.  20150428_015413 And a huge shopping mall that is half empty and looks like Vegas on crack.

China was a trip and we hadn’t even enjoyed our most awesome meal yet – Peking duck.

The Great Noodle Tour: Shen Jiang Bao

So, there are these little dumplings all over the streets of Shanghai. They are called shen jiang bao, and they are more buns than dumplings. Fried doughy buns filled with juicy pork and fabulous soupy broth. I don’t know the names of any of the places that we ate, because they were just little holes in the wall with lines out the door. They are all over the place.

20150426_032247 Look at those little buns just waiting to get all fried and crunchy.  20150426_032256 Steamer baskets full in the windows of little shops. 20150426_032648 Cover and shake, then let them sit so the bottoms get golden and the juice is searing hot.  20150426_032917 A sprinkling of black sesame seeds and all that it needs ia a quick hit of vinegar.  20150426_033222 AAAH MAAHH GAAAHHH SO GOOD. The dumpling dough absorbs the flavor so much better than thin soup dumpling dough. The bottom is crispy and contrasts with the dough and the juicy pork within. Every dumpling is slightly different – softer, harder, juicier, meatier – but they are all absolutely delicious.  20150428_003503 The restaurants that offer these dumplings are very casual and often run out of them by early afternoon. They are mostly a breakfast or lunch food.  20150428_003505 Find some staff who seems nice and point to what other people are eating to order. That’s what we did.
20150428_003554 These long ones had the best ratio of meat:dough that we experienced in China.  20150428_003557 And this is one of my favorite meals of the trip. It was consistently delicious, fun, and SO CHEAP. 4 of us ate like kings for $5 per meal. Apparently they are available in NYC, but not to the same level of amazing-ness. Shen jiang bao – don’t miss them in Shanghai.

*Quick note: New Taste of the UWS is this weekend. This fabulous event covers 3 separate dining experiences and festivals with celebrity chefs and food from all of the UWS greats. The tickets are pricey but the proceeds all go towards beautifying and generally improving the neighborhood. My choice pick is Best of the West, but these are all winners! Get tickets here. This blurb is not sponsored.*

The Great Noodle Tour: Din Tai Fung’s Fabulous Food

I finally made it to the much-lauded dumpling parlor Din Tai Fung

20150427_065114 This Taiwanese chain was started by a Shanghai immigrant who brought his exceptional dumpling skills to Taiwan and created and international sensation known for its cleanliness, predictability, and totally delicious dumplings.

20150427_065104 We were quickly seated by a friendly, English speaking server and then the food came out in quick succession. 
20150427_065254
Even the ginger arrives artfully. 20150427_070337 Shrimp and pork wontons in spicy sauce

 The sleeper hit of the night. Meaty, porky, umami, and pleasantly salty with just a touch of salinity from the ground shrimp. The sauce is spicy, slick with chile oil,a nd peppered with chives. A truly delicious way to start the meal.  20150427_070341 Spring rolls

Crispy, piping hot, savory. Good, not memorable.  20150427_070344 Noodles with minced pork sauce

20150427_070720

MMM, MMM, GOOD! Bouncy, fresh noodles soaking up all of the meaty, tomatoey, porky goodness. A savory way to break up the dumpling monotony. 
20150427_070819 Spicy sautéed green beans…with pork

Notice a theme here? Yep, it’s all about the pork and the veggies are no exception. These beans are cooked over high, high heat until they blister and pop open, allowing the chiles and pork to seep into their every pore.

Good stuff.  20150427_071115 BBQ pork buns. Also good stuff.

20150427_070412

The soup dumplings. I’m so sorry that I don’t have a better photo of these PERFECT little soup dumplings. Oh, they are so divine. Thin skinned like gossamer little pockets of pork and broth. The broth is light and tastes clean, not at all greasy or heavy. The pork fairly dissolves in your mouth. This is a damned fine dumpling that enhanced, not made or broken, by the ginger infused vinegar.
20150427_072652 Sticky rice with pork 20150427_072722 Glutinous. Fatty to the nth degree. Salty and savory. Basically awesome.

If I lived here, I would be a Din Tai Fung fanatic. The service is excellent, they have diet coke (a MAJOR rarity in Asia), and the food is some of the best that we had in China.

The Great Noodle Tour: Nanxiang Steamed Bun Restaurant

20150427_015527

The restaurant that I was told to visit in Shanghai, the city famed for its soup dumplings, was Nanxiang Steamed Bun Restaurant. It’s a mini chain and there is a location isnide the touristy but lovely and well located YuYuan Garden. Think Disney-esque China, complete with street performers, hordes of families with kids, and a million kitschy souvenirs.

20150427_013001 When you follow the signs and eventually find Nanxiang Steamed Buns, you will go upstairs (Skip that huge line outside for the counter service) and be confronted by 2 lines. They are, though not identical, nearly so. Go in whichever line is shorter – there is one dining room that has, like, a $5 minimum spending which you will reach, no problem.  20150427_013007 It’s very, VERY difficult to get any sort of service here. Breathe into it. And tip the first person who comes by. Then the service comes real fast. 
20150427_013500 Soup dumplings.

Pork and Crab. Lovely! Thin, soft wrappers surrounding soft meat and plenty of juice. The pork taste is predominant, which I prefer.  20150427_014233

You can see how juicy it is. The pork is a little underseasoned, but the tangy/tart vinegar spikes it up really well.  20150427_013539 Big ass crab dumpling
20150427_013836 It’s honestly huge. And delicious. Like the most buttery, silky, sweet crab flavored chowder ever. It’s clean and umami, not at all minerally or funky. You sip up the broth through the straw and then discard the wrapper. Or eat it, as I did. Doughy wrapper = excellent vinegar delivery system. 
20150427_015509 Nanxiang is certainly where the locals go and the food is inexpensive and delicious. However, was this the greatest soup dumpling of my trip? Why, no. That’s yet to come. 

The Great Noodle Tour: ANA Flight Tokyo to Shanghai

In which we may together lament the crappy way that Americans experience short haul flights.

20150425_174223 Seeing a cute Victorian home off of the Japanese highway was an odd experience, until I realized that it was Tokyo Disney. I went a long time ago (before this blog was even an idea in my mind) and would definitely go back for the day. It’s like going to an amusement park in outer space. 
20150425_191150 Whiskey and shochu tasting in the ANA business class lounge. Amazing. A damned whiskey tasting in a lounge with showers, shopping, and another sake tasting bar. All for a sub 4 hour flight.
20150425_191639 Noodle bar in that ANA lounge. It’s an extremely kick ass lounge and I highly recommend it.
20150425_201054 Cool livery outside of the airport windows. I would love to go to Thailand someday, sooner than later.  20150425_202416 Incredible business class seats on this short jaunt. Do you see those miles of leg room?
20150425_202425 Super comfortable with slippers, a pillow, individual entertainment systems, and a great recline. I could have flown in this seat for 6 hours.  20150425_213249 Mount Fuji from the airplane…exquisite and majestic. What a view! 20150425_213821 Random Japanese cracker snacks 20150425_214858 Easily the best thing that we ate on the flight.  20150425_220240 The rest of the food was very…Japanese. The western meal was okay – some tender (if salty) beef with a baked turnip, a rather fishy salmon roulade, and a very nice apricot cake. Exceptional, it wasn’t. 
20150425_220313 And the Japanese food, while beautiful, tasted uniformly of fish. And not the good kind of fish. Very thankful for the miso soup that came alongside.  20150425_222816 Plus we got to enjoy a great range of entertainment options, including some amazing documentaries on Japanese chefs. 

The food was a little weird for my tastes, but ANA is a first class experience even on a short business class flight. 

Southwest, eat your hearts out. 

The Great Noodle Tour: The Conrad Tokyo

We stayed at a phenomenal hotel in Tokyo – the Conrad Tokyo.

It’s located within walking distance of the Ginza, right above a convenient subway line, has all of the modern amenities (including a fabulous Toto washlet), several restaurants, and is beautiful. Here are a few snapshots of our time there (mostly food related): 20150420_161735 Beautiful king sized bed (not so easy to find in Japan). The rooms look exactly like they do on the website – no scary surprises here. Big, beautiful double sinked bathroom and plenty of space, even by American standards.  20150420_162356 Sitting area overlooking Tokyo’s busy buildings.  20150420_193751 Private breakfast room for our loud, large group. The rate can include breakfast, and if yours does, you will not be disappointed.  20150420_193840 Cerise, the continental restaurant that serves breakfast and the buffet is legit. Japan is often mocked as the worst Asian country for breakfasts, but the Conrad disproves that theory. A huge buffet filled with Asian dim sum, American omelettes, salad, pastries, fish, meat, and everything else you could possibly want at any time of the day or night. 
20150420_194035 The salad section was welcome after a 10 hour redeye flight.  20150420_194345 The tomatoes are sweet and jewel hued.  20150420_200253 And the bread pudding with Nutella is a good first dessert.  20150420_201204 We sadly never ordered the egg slut.  20150421_192031 But I did eat a ton of noodles with soft eggs and dim sum.  20150425_070126 One night, we actually broke our “all Asian all the time” vow and ate dinner here.  20150425_072406 The spaghetti Bolognese was the best I’ve had since…the last time that I was in Tokyo. Tokyo does the greatest Italian food outside of Greece. I feel like Italy needs to up its own game.  20150425_075339 The French pastries are, as always, sensational.  20150425_080931 A sweet goodbye note from our INCREDIBLE concierge, Ari.

A word about the staff here. The staff here is…impeccable. Leagues better than the much-lauded Park Hyatt. These concierges went above and beyond during a scary medical encounter – let’s just say that I had a bad, BAD allergic reaction after a meal. I was alone in a shopping mall and started to blow up with hives. I was scared that it would spread to my throat. Somehow, the hotel got me a cab, got me home, walked my dad down to a pharmacy, found me Japanese Benadryl, and got it to me within an hour. They closed down the front desk while this happened to take care of me. We weren’t in a suite. They don’t know that I write a blog  . They just did what was necessary to help someone far from home. It left an extraordinary impact on me. I would stay here again in a heartbeat. It’s my home away from home in Tokyo.

Now I just gotta get back there.