Cheat Sheet: Panda Express Innovation Kitchen
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The Gist: The world of fast-food Chinese orange chicken is changing. With new fast-casual concept Panda Express Innovation Kitchen, the kings of cheap Chinese-American food are moving into the world of customizable wraps, bowls and salads, much like Chipotle, ShopHouse and other similar brands. For die-hard Panda Express fans, this is a new mecca — if only because you can create an orange chicken burrito exactly how you want it.
The Vibe: From the outside, it looks like just another stand-alone Panda Express. Inside, the space is more contemporary and, dare we say, stylish? Ok, that might be a stretch, but at least the lamps dangling from the ceiling are cool and there's a lounge near the tea bar — yes, there's a tea bar — and free Wi-Fi. Customers — all obvious orange chicken fans — really just want to get what they came for.
Eat This: We've never been huge Panda Express fans, or just never really understood why it was so popular, even as a guilty pleasure for foodists. But we admit: the orange chicken is good. And in wrap or burrito form, it's even better. If you're a novice, the choices can be a little overwhelming. First pick a base (salad, wrap, rice or chow mein) but note that if you choose a wrap you then get a choice of rice or noodles — or both, as Midtown Lunch instructed us to try. Then you pick your proteins and/or vegetables. Finally, add sauces and any of the crunchy toppings. It's a lot of decision making and you can have as little or as much as you want of everything. We went with fried rice and chow mein, honey walnut shrimp and a special mu shu chicken, all wrapped in the scallion-flecked wrap. The "tortilla" is unique, sort of a scallion mu shu pancake, that holds everything together. We liked the papaya salad and green onion salsa. Definitely get whatever crunchy things they have on the line stuffed inside for added texture. There are also some special dishes and combos, mapo tofu, for instance, Chinese chicken salad, and kung pao chicken wraps. Of course you can get your standard two proteins/one veg plate here, too. It's still Panda Express.
Drink This: About that tea bar: it's kind of cool. As customizable as the bowls, you can order green, black and fruit teas, sweetened to your specification, with boba or lychee and other fun additions. We really liked the raspberry tea (medium-sweet), and the matcha freeze, which blends green tea powder with ice and milk. Although the drinks are made in another area of the room, you can order them with your food. You'll just go to the tea bar to pick them up.
Skip This: We sampled a beef salad — and while it's all still Panda Express tasty — it's not what you come here for. But it's always nice to know a slightly more healthful options is there.
The Tab: Your meal without a drink will still be around $10, unless you go crazy with the add-ons.
The Verdict: This whole concept is basically a big test kitchen for Panda Express. With more than 1700 stores and stands worldwide, the idea is to take parts of this and roll it out across the country, but the new outposts won't necessarily be exact replicas of this store. The Tea Bar, for instance, will open in a few cities soon, and maybe some of the menu items will be offered — like the wraps — at existing Panda Express locations. It makes sense that it's all starting here: Panda Express grew out of the Panda Inn, which is still open a few blocks away in Pasadena. Will we go out of our way to eat here? Sure, if the orange chicken craving strikes and we're nearby. The burrito/wrap option is pretty tasty, and we can see it gaining a following as much as the sweet, slightly spicy glazed fried chicken nuggets have. The lines are already long during prime dining hours, especially at dinner time.
3867 E. Foothill Blvd.; 626-351-9128