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: 
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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: 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: 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. 

Muffaletta at Central Grocery, New Orleans

On my first trip to The Big Easy, I ate quite well.

But I left without trying something that I have always dreamed of eating.

No, not some ultra expensive caviar or deluxe champagne.

An original muffaletta from Central Grocery.

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Legend has it that Salvatore Lupo, the store’s original owner, invented this sandwich in 1906 for the dock workers and produce grocers of the city. The Sicilian immigrant layered cold cuts, cheese, and a spicy relish onto freshly baked loaves of round bread and served them to hungry customers.

The rest is history.

20150313_160349 This tiny grocery store is packed full of Italian and European imports. Cheeses, meats, olives. Preserved fruits, breads, olive oils, and vinegars. 20150313_160358 The real pull here, though, is that mufaletta. Just line up, wait your turn, and order a half  ( each quarter of the sandwich is HUGE).

20150313_160902This is a great example of “don’t judge a book by its cover.” What appears to be an ordinary sandwich is, in fact, quite extraordinary.

It’s the best damn cold cut sandwich I ever had in my life.
20150313_160845Garlicky salami, ham so sweet and thin that it might as well be prosciutto, and creamy, tangy provolone. Bread that is thick but not dense, substantial, but not cottony. And that relish. THAT RELISH. Garlic, olives, capers, peppers, vinegar, and love? That’s all I can guess that’s in there. Both my sister (olive-hater) and I (olive-lover) were crazy about this relish. If we had done stow-away luggage, we would have brought some home! Here, the whole is really greater than the sum of its parts. I don’t like ham – never have, never will. When it comes to sandwiches, I ALWAYS need more veggies than meat. And I have always thought that this sandwich looked a little too dry for my tastes – where’s the mayo or mustard?

This. is. perfect. I had no fewer than 2 of these in 36 short hours.

And I brought one on the plane.

Sure beat that packet of peanuts.

Don’t miss this sandwich – stand and eat it at the counter or bring it home for a midnight snack.

Next up: A real Southern brunch, y’all.

Wasabi Doesn’t Bring the Heat

My sister and I checked out Wasabi for lunch the other day.

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It’s a cool, easy concept – pre-wrapped sushi, miso soup, katsu, and other assorted Japanese-y dishes that you put together to make your own inexpensive lunch or dinner. It’s very minimalist and modern without being cold – IKEA would do well here, and so would your co-workers.

Unfortunately, there was a weird, fishy smell to the place which turned us off trying any of the sushi.

20150312_112831Vegetarian gyoza

Surprisingly delicious. I haven’t ever had room temperature dumplings, but these are surprisingly delicious! Served atop baby greens and drizzled with a sweet and spicy glaze, these are crispy and stuffed with soft vegetables, toothsome soybeans, and a healthy dollop of spice. The gyoza are crispy outside and because they are both room temperature and vegetarian, they are refreshing – not often a word hat I associate with gyoza!

20150312_112932Chicken katsu

Nothing revelatory, but fine. A little dry, a little undersalted, but I love katsu of any sort. I actually also love cold friend chicken, so this pseudo-warm stuff works for me. The dipping sauce is a little too sweet for my liking, but the chicken is tender and tasty enough to enjoy all on its own.

20150312_112334I had high hopes that Wasabi would be the cheap sushi holy grail, but it really isn’t. It’s cheap, clean, and serviceable, but not much more.

It’s okay that I ate lightly, though, because I’m headed to New Orleans this weekend. LORDY, please help me maintain some cholesterol stasis there.

Delivery Diaries: Oaxaca Taqueria

I have been to Oaxaca Taqueria before, but not when it was snowing.

In March.

When it snows in March, I order in. And I drink white Russians.

Let’s just say that my alcohol tolerance has really increased this winter, mkay?

Anyway, let’s see how Oaxava delivers on the delivery front:

20150301_171808 Salad with pulled chicken

The salad that really eats like a meal. The lettuce is dressed in a light, zippy lime dressing and is tossed with fresh pico de gallo and piquant pickled onions. The chicken is juicy and well spiced with cumin and garlic. Guacamole is creamy and rich and the sour cream is…well..w.ho doesn’t love sour cream? I do miss a crunchy element here, but an order of fresh, well salted tortilla chips fixes that problem right away. This isn’t soggy or overdressed. It’s also not an afterthought, like so many salads at other Mexican places.
20150301_171811 Quesadilla

Tasty, nothing more. Crispy tortilla, melty cheese. It would have been improved by some jalapenos or pickled onions – they should jazz up the quesadilla offerings a bit.

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Carnitas torta

Yeah, this is what I want when it’s snowing. All day, every day.

20150301_172059The juiciest, porkiest carnitas. Spicy jalapeno and cumin-spiced beans. Shredded lettuce, tangy cheese, and the bread…oh the gbread. The bread just makes this sandwich. Thick but very soft, threatening to fall apart but holding together through the smoky chipotle spread. This is definitely on the spicy side of things, but I love that. This is a LARGE sandwich and you could easily split it with someone for lunch, as long as a side of chips and guacamole is also involved.

Oaxaca Taqueria delivers on all fronts. It comes promptly, the price is fair, and the food is really good. As in, you don’t feel like you have killed your cholesterol when you are done eating.

It’s so tasty that I will almost be sad when spring finally arrives, because I won’t be able to order in as much any more.

Keyword: almost.

Queen of Sheba – Memorable Food, Questionable Service

It was a cold, rainy Saturday. We hadn’t eaten since 11 am. And we needed food that we could eat in our ratty jeans at 530 pm.

Ethiopian, it was!

20150117_173209 Queen of Sheba is the type of place that you might have seen in Alphabet City in the 1990s. It’s half casual cafe/restaurant, half ethnic enclave with low stools and cool (I assume Ethiopian) woven tables with tagine covers. Obviously, we chose the tagine table. And waited to get served. For a loooong time. The service here is lackadaisical at best…at worst, it’s like sitting in coach on a flight all the way to Ethiopia. And this was at an off hour when the restaurant wasn’t busy. 20150117_175145 Tomato salad

Just fabulous. I know, it seems weird – how can a simple tomato, onion, and jalapeno salad be fabulous? But it was. In a bright, but not sour, dressing that is laden with fruity olive oil but surprisingly not heavy or oily. It’s fresh and vibrant, laying on spongy, pleasantly sour injera. The injera underneath the salad is the best part – it soaks up the juices and becomes wonderfully flavorful but not soggy. Oh, and roll up those sleeves – this salad, like all Ethiopian food, is eaten with the hands.

20150117_175153 Sambusas

Samosa-like pastries. Fried pastry pockets filled with cumin spiced ground beef and served with a tangy, spiced (but not spicy) chile sauce. Delectable. You can also get them filled with lentils, which might be even more delicious. 20150117_181740Kitfo and Menchet Abesh Wot with collard grens, lentils, kidney beans, and cheese

Kitfo – Ethiopian steak tartare – not as good as Awash. Less heat and a bit smokier. Still very tasty, but not my number one fave.

Menchet Abesh Wot – Utterly delicious. Spicy, buttery ground beef seasoned with jalapeno, ginger,and just a hint of garlic. It’s like the best old school taco meat without cumin or coriander. It’s rich, well spiced, and I couldn’t stop eating it. The collard greens, lentils, and kidney beans were all excellent, reminiscent of Indian food. The feta cheese tasted like squeaky air, but that’s really the only  loser on a plate filled with winners.

Queen of Sheba is cheap, delicious, and great…if you aren’t too immediatelyhungry and don’t have anywhere to go. Look, the service is really bad…horrible. But if you are in the hood and have a hankering, I think it’s the bees knees.

Brindle Room – The Best Burger in NYC

I don’t think that I have ever written an entire post on just one main dish at a restaurant that offered more than that dish. 

And yet, that’s exactly what I ‘m going to do:

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Brindle Room has been on my B list for awhile. I have wanted to go for the burger. But, let’s be honest – a lot of places have great burgers.  And a schlep to the East Village isn’t exactly my idea of a great Tuesday night.

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The restaurant is tiny – it looks more like a neighborhood bar or gastropub than anything else. I made reservations but when I saw the Lilliputian kitchen and the none-too-crowded dining room, I scoffed at needing them.

When I waited 30 minutes for the burger, I doubted my decision in coming downtown at all.

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And then, this arrived.

It looked good.

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Then I had a fry. These are good fries. Very good fries. Fresh cut and in between thick-and-thin. They are well salted with the crispy, translucent potato skins that I love most of all. Served with Sir Kensington’s ketchup and some of the best, spiciest, well seasoned hot sauce that I have ever enjoyed, these are worth a side dish order on their own.

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Then, the burger. Made from dry aged steak and deckle trimmings. With caramelized onions and a light topping of melted cheddar cheese.

This is a burger. This is better than Minetta Tavern, Corner Bistro, and In-n-Out combined. It’s the only burger, besides Louis Lunch, that has required no extra condiments. I did add a couple of the excellent pickles, but ketchup would have totally overwhelmed the meat. The meat is something else. It’s coarsely ground and lightly packed so it is tender but not falling apart. It holds together with seemingly nothing other than fat and a prayer. It coats your lips in the wonderful, slick layer of fat that marrow sometimes leaves behind. It tastes deep and minerally, but not at all funky or gamy. It’s the best burger I have had in NYC. No question. The onions are sweet, the bun is squishy, but that meat is where it’s at. I could eat 3 of these. Don’t order it to split with your friends – this is a small burger and you will not want to share.

And at $12 for brunch, the price is right.

Brindle room isn’t fancy. The service is a little slow. And the atmosphere is so hipster that you will feel as though your jeans will never be skinny enough. But the burger is so wonderfully, amazingly, totally, perfect that you won’t even notice.

I weep for this burger.

And the place filled up fast, so make those reservations and don’t doubt your decision for a second. 

Cheesy Baked Spaghetti Squash

This is less of a recipe and more of a tutorial.

It’s how you cook spaghetti squash. It’s pretty quick and made with stuff you already have in your pantry and fridge.

It does NOT taste like spaghetti – whoever said that should be shot. That’s like saying that mayonnaise and marshmallow creme taste the same because they look alike.

Come ON, people.

Anyway, this recipe is good for meatless Monday. It’s filling, it’s cheap, and if you use really great sauce, it’s pretty satisfying, too.

Cheesy Baked Spaghetti Squash

spaghetti squash parmesanIngredients:

1 large spaghetti squash

1.5 jars your favorite pasta sauce (I sautee some mushrooms quickly and add those, some sriracha, and a little dried basil to my favorite jarred sauce)

1 ball low moisture mozzarella (regular is also okay, but make sure it’s fresh and high quality)

IMG_1921 1. Cut the squash in half lengthwise (use a heavy duty knife – it’s a hard shell!) and scoop the seeds and strings out of the cavity and discard. Then, place shell side up in a microwave safe pan, with a wee bit of water in the bottom. Microwave for 12 minutes and wait for the squash to be cool enough to handle. IMG_1929 2. Take the fork and scrape it against the inside of the squash – the flesh magically separates into noodle-like strands. Preheat the oven to 350F.

Now, let’s layer!IMG_1944 3. Sauce…IMG_1946 squash…IMG_1950 mozz…IMG_1953 repeat. I finish with an extra layer of sauce, but you do whatever works best for you. IMG_19564. Bake for 20 minutes or until the cheese is melted, golden, and bubbling. There will be a ton of extra liquid, but much of it will thicken as it cools to an edible temperature. IMG_19645. Serve over greens for an extra dose of roughage.

Like I said, this is a technique, not a recipe. It’s just jarred sauce, fresh cheese, and squash that you can keep on your counter for a week till you need it. It’s super filling and an easy way to go meatless – because if you are adding meat, just go whole hog and use actual noodles, ya know? This is one of my husband’s favorite healthy meals, and I have to say that as long as you are expecting the bouncy, snappy, earthy taste and texture of squash, it will be one of yours, too.

Spicy Baked Kale and Artichoke Dip

Happy New Year! I hope that you are ready to eat some KALE!

Don’t worry…this kale is loaded with cheese, cream, and hot sauce.

Basically, I made a fabulous kale salad for dinner the other night – don’t worry, I’ll blog it! Anyway, no one ever eats THAT much kale, and my remnants usually go into a frittata or waste away in the fridge. But after NYE, we had some cheese left over.

Like, a TON of cheese.

And some artichokes.

And I was feeling blue that the holidays are over and just felt like being fatty and indulgent. I used bacon fat in this recipe, riffing off of this one, but butter works just as well. You could certainly throw some ground sausage in here, as well as olives, roasted red peppers, etc. The sky’s the limit – all that you need to do is use up the random ingredients in your fridge.

Oh, and don’t plan on wearing a bathing suit the next day. Because this goes straight to your love handles. It’s okay, those resolutions can start tomorrow.

Spicy Baked Kale and Artichoke Dip

hot kale dipIngredients:

3-4 cups washed, dried, and cut kale

1 tbsp. butter or bacon fat

1 onion, diced

2 cloves garlic

1 serrano pepper, diced

2 cans of artichoke hearts or crowns

1.5 packages of cream cheese (assorted varieties are fine – I had leftover veggie and scallion, but use whatever works best for you)

salt and pepper to taste

Tabasco sauce to taste (about 8 dashes for spicy but not painful)

1/2 cup shredded cheese (I used cheddar and Asiago, but fontina and Parmesan would also be fabulous)

20150101_172351 1. Saute the onion and garlic over medium heat with the fat of your choice for about 15 minutes, or until the veggies are softened and translucent. You could let these go for even longer on a slower heat if you are patient. Obviously, I’m not – the point here is to get the alliums soft and remove their bite. 20150101_172804 2. Add the kale and cover. Reduce the heat slightly and let cook for about 10 minutes. When you remove the lid, the kale should be quite soft and the scent should be damned near intoxicating – especially if you use bacon fat. Wow. 20150101_174059 3. Add all of the ingredients except half of the shredded cheese into a baking dish and mix well. Really incorporate those veggies into that cream cheese and mayo mixture. Preheat the oven to 350F.20150101_174331 4. Add the rest of the cheese to the top, and bake for 35 minutes or until the cheese is melted, brown, bubbly, and every other type of delicious word that you can imagine.

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https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EXtDB1hl640&feature=youtu.be

Click here ^ to hear the sound of delicious. 

That’s what it should sound like (minus your husband on the phone in the background.)

20150101_1857515. Eat with tortilla chips, celery stalks, and spoons. 
20150101_185811But mostly just tortilla chips. Maybe very thick potato chips – they need to be able to stand up to this rather thick, substantial dish.
20150101_185819This is just so indulgent. Creamy, cheesy, and just on the border of bieng too rich. Velvety artichoke hearts, zesty Serrano peppers, and that wonderful bacony kale. This recipe is great for kale that is perhaps JUST past its prime. After all, you don’t want the kale to be too crunchy – you want it nice and soft. It’s reminiscent of  cheesy garlic bread, but even better. The kale really does add a meaty, minerally content that cheesy garlic bread lacks. Bring this to a party and you will be the most popular kid there.

Of course, make it at home and eat the whole pan and you will hate yourself.

Like I said, resolutions can start tomorrow.