Panda Inn

In the past few years, a wave of joy has occasionally swept our city and, at times, our nation – a sense of excitement that I call “panda-monium”. This frenzy involves giant panda bears- receiving one, watching a birth of one, and so on. Receipt of a panda is often a cause for intense civic celebration because it takes high level international diplomacy to get a panda bear to a zoo. Panda exhibits are prominent in such major zoos as in San Diego, Washington DC and Atlanta. Successful research on panda preservation is often heralded in zoo fund raising drives. Webcams allow a 24 hour access to every grunt and groan emitted by the bears.

People love pandas, those cute and cuddly black and white bears that often symbolize our childhood.

I also love another panda, Panda Inn on the top floor floor of Horton Plaza. The restaurant has been at the location since the Plaza opened, over 16 years, and we spent many happy hours and occasions during my childrens childhood.

I revisited Panda Inn to plan a family dinner. “It is a wonderful place to bring the family,” said the general manager Juan Villalpando, “because we serve ‘family style.’ All of our portions are generous and we encourage sharing between people to have them experience the blending of our many flavors.”

The founder of Panda Inn was a chef in China before he emigrated to the United States. The company now has 5 restaurants as well as over 400 Panda Express fast food units nationwide. The Panda Inn concept is all about elegant, upscale dining. On February 27, the company will unveil its new menu in the Pasadena unit, which will include a “Forbidden City” page featuring classic recipes.

The style of cooking is predominantly Mandarin and Szechuan, blending the sweetness of the former with the spicyness of the latter.

Panda Inn has a distinct philosophy for food preparation. Dishes must satisfy on many sensory levels. COLORS must be vibrant and show the natural beauty of food. FRAGRANCE of food, its natural perfume, must signal the delicacy that is to be enjoyed. TASTE must burst with flavor. When all of these elements are properly balanced, the result is COMPLETENESS, the feeling of satisfaction in enjoying a good meal.

Add great service to the mixture and you have a memorable meal. Our server was informative and attentive. “All our servers are trained to make recommendations to insure that flavors are balanced and complement each other, not compete with one another,” Villalpando explained.

I had a choice of sitting on the outdoor patio, which is a great place to enjoy a beautiful day and to watch the crowd, or the comfortable interior. I could even have a city view table with a “peek” of the ocean. The interior is beautifully decorated with Chinese artifacts and large urns, many framed in dark wood. Two “Xian” horses are esconsed on one wall. The ambiance is of a very upscale, elegant ethnic restaurant.

We began with Mu Shu, an appetizer that can be made with chicken, pork, or vegetarian. We selected the chicken version, which is made of tender chicken slices mixed with cabbage and deep fried in a wok. This is blended with soy sauce and rolled into a thin crepe-like pancake. The dish is prepared ceremoniously be the server tableside. Hoisin sauce is available for extra flavor, which it did not need. The dish was wonderful.

Other appetizers and soups include Fried Shrimp, Steamed Dumplings, Three Flavor Sizzling Rice Soup (a terrific dish) and Mango Duck Salad, together with other selections.

The menu is selective and very easy to work with. A la carte entrees are listed on one side and the specialties are listed on the other. The names of dishes are immediately familiar to anyone who enjoys Chinese cooking. Noodle dishes include lo mein and chow mein. Shrimp is prepared a number of ways – “hot” Kon Pao, Sweet & Sour, or in tangy garlic sauce. Meat dishes include Moo Goo Gai Pan, Peking Duck and Mongolian Beef. Vegetable dishes include Sauteed Spinach and Braised String Beans. Chinese restaurants are often favored by vegetarians because of the variety and flavors of pure vegetable dishes.

The Shrimp with Broccoli was amazingly good. Panda Inn must have a friend at the fish market because all the shrimp were so fresh, well sized and firm. Quickly prepared in a wok, with soy, the flavors of the fish and vegetable matched perfectly. We added Eggplant with Garlic Sauce, that had a delicate but delightful oily taste infused with the garlic flavor.

Honey Walnut Shrimp is one of the most popular dishes and, with one bite, I knew why. The taste is amazing. The shrimp is glazed to a honey yellow color that is very appealing. The glaze gives it a crunchy texture with an explosion of flavor when you bite into it. The walnuts are boiled in a syrup and then deep fried to seal in their sweetness. Eat the shrimp and walnuts together and you get a strongly textured mouthful with an amazing blend of sweetness and firmness. Wow!

The bar offers cocktails, a good California wine list and a choice of domestic and international beers, including beers from Japan and China.

No Chinese meal is complete without a fortune cookie. The Chinese culture strongly believes in luck and fortune. At Panda Inn, fortune cookies are very special because they are dipped in sweet white chocolate. When they were young, my children could hardly wait for the end of the meal.

Desserts include Cheesecake, White Chocolate Cake, Carrot Cake and traditional leechee nuts in syrup.

The best way to enjoy Panda Inn is to partake of the Sunday Champagne Brunch. The many appetizers and entrees available allow one to mix, match and blend flavors to find that perfect, satisfying combination.

Another element that makes Panda Inn so satisfying is the price. In my view, given the elegant ambiance and wonderful flavors, dining at Panda Inn is a bargain. Prices are inexpensive to moderate. Entrees and specialties range $10-$15. The all-you-can-eat Sunday Champagne Brunch is only $17.95. It is one of the best deals in town.

Panda Inn is located on the top level of Horton Plaza. Reservations are suggested. Parking is easy, in the seven story free, validated parking for diners and shoppers at the Plaza. Call 619-233-7800 for information.

CyberEater Restaurant Reviews may be found published in the Daily Transcript. In addition to Dining San Diego’s Guide to Fine Restaurants in San Diego, please visit the San Diego Cyber Concierge web site for help finding the ideal restaurant for your needs. Copies of Dining San Diego Magazine are FREE at major hotels.

© David Rottenberg, 2002, All Rights Reserved

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