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: 
pandae

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.

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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.
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First up, I asked for lettuce, carrots and scallions.
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Then orange chicken.
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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.
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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: 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_072558Honey-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 noodles20150428_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_085720You 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: 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_003505Find 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_003557And 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_065104We were quickly seated by a friendly, English speaking server and then the food came out in quick succession. 
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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

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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.

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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 pork20150427_072722Glutinous. 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

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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_013007It’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_013539Big 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. 

Happy Lunar New Year! Let’s Eat Shrimp Toast!

Happy Lunar New Year!

In honor of this important day in some of my most favorite food cultures, I’m posting one of my all time favorite recipes.

Well, I’m RE-posting it.

Because who the hell was reading here in 2011, after all?

Shrimp Toast Recipe


INGREDIENTS:
1/2 lbs. shrimp, cleaned and de-veined
1/2 loaf white bread (stale or lightly toasted)
1/2 onion, chopped into large chunks
1 clove garlic
1 small piece ginger, peeled
4 cups vegetable or peanut oil
1 egg white (don’t forget how to separate the eggs)
1 cup cilantro, cleaned
2 tsp. soy sauce
1 tsp. lime zest

 1. Cut off crusts of bread.

2. Cut bread slices into triangles. Set aside.

 3. Throw the onions, garlic, ginger…

cilantro, and shrimp into the food processor.
4. Pulse until it is a pretty smooth paste
5. Add soy sauce, lime zest, and
egg white.

 6. Spread mixture on bread in about 1/8 inch thickness.

 7. Place bread on spatula, shrimp side down.

 8. Slide bread into boiling oil CAREFULLY (it will splatter if you drop it from too high).

 9. Cook 2 minutes per side, or until lightly golden, then drain on paper towel.

10. Eat this golden piece of toast. Topped with a springy, firm layer of sweet and salty shrimp, laced with the heat of ginger, the fragrance of cilantro and the zing of garlic, this is might be my new favorite way to eat shrimp. I like mine with a dipping sauce made of 1/2 soy, 1/2 rice wine vinegar and a few diced Serrano chiles, but you might like yours plain. Or you might like yours with a spritz of lime and a few water chestnuts.  And if you don’t like yours…
send them to me.
And I’m sorry you have no taste buds. 

Chinese Chicken Salad

Chinese chicken salad is SO under-represented on the east coast.

I don’t know why that is. Is it because Wolfgang Puck, creator of the world’s finest Chinese chicken salad, focused on the west coast in is heyday? Is it because NYC focuses more on dim sum and miso cod and less on the light food that you need on the incredibly hot, often arid weather on the west coast?

I don’t know and I don’t care.

Bottom line: I need Chinese chicken salad in my life. And here is what that salad needs:

-soft, moist, poached or roasted but certainly not grilled chicken

-cabbage, not lettuce

-something crunchy

-a dressing that is a little spicy, a little sweet, and incredibly tart and refreshing.

So what’s a gal to do?

Make it herself, of course.

Chinese Chicken Salad

chinese chicken saladIngredients:

1 package shredded cabbage or coleslaw mix

1 shallot, half in large slices and half in small dices

3 boneless, skinless chicken breasts

Enough wine or beer to barely cover the chicken in a shallow saute pan

1 cup cilantro, cleaned and chopped

1 tsp. chopped ginger

1 clove garlic, diced

pita chips or fried wontons

sesame oil

peanut oil

wasabi and mustard OR hot English/Chinese mustard

sesame seeds

hoisin sauce

rice wine vinegar

soy sauce

20141208_171918 1. Put the wine, ginger, garlic, and the sliced part of the shallot in a large, shallow saucepan. Put he chicken breasts in there, too. Set it to medium high until it simmers, then set it to medium low. Cover and check back every 3 minutes until the chicken is poached – you want to take the chicken out when it is still BARELY pink in the very center of the breast. As it cools it will continue to cook. 20141208_174018 2. While the chicken cooks, put the scallions, snow peas, and cabbage into a large bowl. 20141208_1741423. Make the dressing. This is a ratio thing, so get ready for it:

2 parts oil: 1 part rice wine vinegar: .5 part hoisin sauce: .25 part hot mustard/mustard and wasabi combo

Everything else is negotiable. You are looking for a dressing that is light, sweet, tart, an only BARELY spicy. Don’t forget to put the diced shallot in there, too.
20141208_175706 4. When the chicken is cool enough to handle, pull it with 2 forks. Alternatively, you can make the chicken ahead of time and then pull it and make the salad the following day. 20141208_175903 5. Add the chicken, pita or wontons, and dressing to the salad. Make sure that the salad is well dressed – it’s the secret to what makes this so embarrassingly addictive. 20141208_1802586. Serve – if you want, like I did, with super crispy, soy sautéed potstickers

This is what I crave…THIS is the stuff. Light, crispy, juicy, and hearty. A tiny punch of heat and whole lot of sweet and tangy. The slight bitterness of the cabbage plays off of the juicy, ginger infused chicken and the sweet snow peas. Wontons are traditional but all I had were some rather stale pita chips and – lo and behold – it totally worked! The chips soaked up the dressing and managed to stay a little crispy. And oh, that dressing…you could serve this a rubber band and people would clamor over that rubber band. The secret is the hoisin sauce – its sweet, viscous, and umami.

I’m picking up where Wolfgang puck left off – because the East coast deserves its own Chinese chicken salad.

Go to Dim Sum Go Go

Enjoying dim sum is one of my favorite dining activities. Usually because I love those little carts.

But this time…at a small, modern, clean, cartless place that is perfect for gringos who need pictorial menus to choose what they want…I came for the food.

And it is worth it.

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Dim Sum Go Go isn’t too crowded on a weekday for lunch, but I hear that it gets hopping on the weekends, so you might want to get there early. They serve dim sum every day of the week from 10 AM and though you do miss the carts (I certainly did), what they lack in atmosphere they make up in quality of food.

IMG_20131018_122500_314Har gow

I’m not even a fan of shrimp dumplings.  I often find them muddy and iodine-y with weird-looking, ill cleaned shrimp. These blew my mind. So fresh and thin skinned filled with sweet, vaguely briny whole shrimp that pop in the mouth with  a pleasing “snap.” I took a peek (never a good thing to do in a dim sum restaurant) and the innards are pristinely clean. Dipped in some of the tableside xo sauce and leek-horseradish relish, it is savory, salty, and delicious. If you like har gow, you are going to love these – I surely did!IMG_20131018_122057_922 Bbq pork puffs

Like char siu bao wrapped in croissants. That’s right – sweet and sticky bbq pork inside flaky, buttery croissants. If you don’t like that, why are we even friends?IMG_20131018_123317_379Eggplant casserole

Not on the dim sum menu, but totally worth ordering. Tiny chinese eggplants are peeled then steamed inside an earthen dish that is basically as hot as the surface of the sun. It emerges velvety and soft, slicked with an insanely garlicky, somewhat spicy sauce. It doesn’t taste too garlicky at the time, but trust me…its stays with you. and you don’t even care. Because it’s so tasty.  And – bonus! – vegetarian!
IMG_20131018_122048_218Vegetable rice rolls

Always my favorite dim sum dish. Thick, chewy rice noodles wrapped around savory beef or – in this case – soft, ginger scented, peppery vegetables. It’s like an eggroll inside a warm, comforting, noodle-y blanket. Enjoy it with the sharp black vinegar that cuts through heavy, fatty tastes.
IMG_20131018_122504_389Duck dumplings

Juicy, sweet duck scented with cinnamon and cumin inside gossamer thin wrappers. Not just sweet but savory, too. Tiny pockets of ducky goodness – the duck flavor is very pronounced, so don’t order this expecting a standard chicken dumpling. Order it expecting something much better.

This isn’t even all the food we ordered, and we couldn’t spend more than $20 a person. Really, it was so much food for so little money. ANd it was GREAT! More than that, it was easy to order. Even a dim sum newbie can look at the pictures and see what looks good. It’s clean, it’s easy to order, and it’s so tasty.

It’s called Dim Sum Go Go because you really must go go there.

Dim Sum Go Go on Urbanspoon

Cantonese Tomato Beef

It’s not sophisticated. It’s not nouveau.  It’s way more Fritos than foie gras.  But here goes:

  I LOVE American-Cantonese style Chinese food.

Sticky, sweet, and comforting. These are the flavors that many of us non-Chinese people probably grew up with, in shabby, dark restaurants with stale wontons served aside a plate of viscous, sweet sauce on the table.  Or in fluorescent lit shops, where we ordered beef with broccoli and extra egg rolls from a pimply teenager working behind the counter.  Whatever the venue, chances are, we have all eaten and still enjoy Cantonese food. And so I bring you my totally inauthentic yet truly delicious version of one of my favorite Cantonese dishes:

Cantonese Tomato Beef 

2010-09-29 tomato beefIngredients:

1 lb. London broil

3 onions, quartered

1 bunch celery, roughy chopped

10 ripe tomatoes, cored and cut into wedges

1 box chicken stock

1/2 cup ketchup

1/4 cup soy sauce

2 tbsp. sugar

cornstarch to coat (about 1 tbsp.)

dash of hot sesame oil

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1. Cut your meat into very thin slices by cutting against the grain. If it helps to put it in the freezer for 10 minutes before you slice it, go for it. I find that a sharp knife is really the best trick here.

tomato beef 025

2. Put the meat into a plastic bag with the ketchup, soy, sugar, and sesame oil. Knock it around so the marinade really gets everywhere, then pop it in the fridge while you prepare the rest of the dish.

tomato beef 0193. Set the tomatoes, celery, and onions in a large stock pot with a bit of veggie oil. Sautee over medium high heat for about 5 minutes, or until they start to turn translucent.

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4. Now, add the chicken stock and let the whole mixture boil on high for about 30 minutes, until the vegetables are all quite soft.  

tomato beef 029 tomato beef 0313. Add the cornstarch to the bag with the meat, toss it around, then throw the meat in the pot. In about 3 minutes, the meat should be cooked, and the dish will be done. 

tomato beef 0354. Taste for seasonings and serve over hot rice. 

tomato beef 038

A fried egg would not be amiss here, either.  And, of course, I always add a healthy dose of sriracha.

 

This is just so delicious.  Sweet, salty, and beefy, with sweet onions and tender celery.   It is not overly spicy or filled with exotic vegetables.  It is just comforting, Asian-American goodness.  It makes me smile and fills me up on a fall night.  It is so distinctly from the Chinese food memories of my youth.  

And THAT is pretty damn sweet indeed.

Spicy Soba Lo Mein

Instead of venturing out for Chinese food this Christmas, I decided to make it. I love Chinese food – the spice, the salt, the complex flavors – but I occasionally get CFB:

Chinese Food Bloat

Quite frankly, it makes me hold my jeans together with a rubber band. One cup of hot and sour soup and my ankles are the size of an Olsen twin’s thigh.

Anyway, this Chinese inspired lo mein is tasty without being insanely heavy and salty. It’s really less Chinese than faux-Asian, but hey…it’s NYC. Home to the pastrami egg roll.

We embrace the inauthentic.

Spicy Soba Lo Mein

Ingredients:

1 package soba noodles, cooked

1 package cleaned mushroom slices

1 head napa cabbage

1 onion, sliced into rings

1 clove garlic, diced

1 tbsp. veggie oil

1/3 lb. ground pork

1/2 lb. snow peas

1 tbsp. sambal olek

1/3 cup hoisin sauce

1/2 cup bulgogi or teriyaki sauce

dash of sesame oil

2 tbsp. Chinese 5 spice

scallions, to garnish

1. Sautee the onions, 5 spice, and garlic in a large sautee pan until the veggies are translucent.

2. Add the sambal olek, mushrooms, and the pork. Cook until the pork is totally cooked through. Some charring is okay.

3. Now, add the pea pods and the cabbage. The cabbage is going to fill the pan very high, but don’t worry. It all wilts down to almost nothing. Also don’t’ worry if this doesn’t look/smell too Asian yet. That comes in the dressing.

4. In about 10 minutes, the mushrooms should be soft and juicy and the cabbage should have wilted own far. Now, add the noodles…

and marinade (made of the teriyaki sauce, sesame oil, and hoisin sauce)…

5. And serve, topped with scallions if desired.

This is not the same as restaurant lo mein, but it’s a damn good substitute. Soba noodles are springy with a good bite, and absorb the nutty, sweet flavors of the marinade well. The juicy pork, crunchy snap peas, and hit of aromatic Chinese 5 spice make this complex and hearty enough for a main course, especially if paired with a cucumber salad and/or some flank steak.

Or some take out hot and sour soup.

Just get out your fat pants – the bloat won’t escape you if you go the delivery route.