I value the food and restaurant recommendations I receive from readers and colleagues; you rarely steer me wrong. So when I got a bundle of e-mails singing the praises of the Panda, I promptly filed them away with the hundreds of other messages on my hard drive in the Food & Booze folder reserved for hot tips.
According to a reader named John, the food at Panda is “delicious” and “The place is as clean as it gets!” He also commented that the price for dinner was so low that he’d felt “embarrassed” to pay his bill. Jean remarked in an e-mail message that, “My kids just adore this place, especially the fried rice! It’s quick, easy and yummy.” And then Ann, a former City Weekly colleague with a sophisticated palate and highly sensitive radar for good food said about the Panda, “The food is excellent.” That was good enough for me.
It took me a while to realize that my informants were talking about three different Pandas. John digs the Panda Buffet on West North Temple. Jean and her kids enjoy eating at Panda Express. And my old pal Ann was talking about the Panda CafÃ©, just a few doors south of the City Weekly offices on Main Street. So hey, why not try them all?
Up to my neck in Pandas, that’s what I am. The panda is beloved in China, and so seemingly every third Chinese restaurant in the United States is named for the cute and cuddly beast. Google “Panda Chinese Restaurant” and you’ll come up with 975,000 hits: Little Panda, Red Panda, Panda House, Royal Panda, Golden Panda, Panda Palace, Panda City â€¦ the list goes on and on and on. Interestingly, I didn’t come up with a single restaurant called Xiongmao, the Chinese word for Panda, or “giant cat bear.”
In my family, three out of four of us loved the food at Panda Express. It doesn’t really matter which one you go to; there are more than 800 Panda Express locations nationwide, and they are all virtually identical. Guess which one of us didn’t like Panda Express? Exactly. My companion and her kids especially favor the fried rice (bland as all get out) and the soggy Kung Pao chicken, which had a nice chili pepper kick to it but way too much chopped zucchini for my taste'zucchini in Kung Pao chicken? For $4.35, the Panda Bowl is a bowl of steamed rice with a helping of Kung Pao chicken (or any other entrÃ©e) piled on top. My beef and broccoli tasted like steam-table cuisine, which it was. The broccoli was served up in abundance but was limp and lifeless, so overcooked as to be inedible; broccoli ought not to have the consistency of Cheez Whiz. Luckily, my order included three or four thin slices of tasteless but tender beef, which salvaged the dish somewhat. I will, however, admit to liking the flavor of the Mandarin chicken: tender strips of thigh meat marinated in a sweet and salty Mandarin sauce, then grilled and served with rice.
Panda Buffet is what it is: a buffet. The food is mostly of the quality you’d expect in an all-you-can-eat family restaurant. Little English is spoken there, but the service is quick. Used plates are rapidly replaced and drinks are kept filled. The potstickers at Panda Buffet are dee-lish! I’d eaten a half-dozen or so before I got around to trying anything else, like the so-so hot and sour soup, the tepid and taste-free steamed shrimp, the boring fried fish, fried shrimp, french fries and fried wontons. There were steamed crab legs, though, and those savory legs made the price of admission ($6.49 for lunch/$9.59 at dinner and half that for kids 4-10, including drinks) indeed seem embarrassingly low, as my tipster John had suggested. Then there was a fiery Szechuan pork dish that was outstanding, as was the non-greasy'as opposed to the Panda Express version'vegetable lo mein. Skip the desserts, though; they are the least appealing thing about Panda Buffet, a restaurant I’d return to for heaping helpings of dumplings and crab legs.
By the time I got around to Ann’s recommended restaurant'Panda CafÃ© on Main'it was no longer called Panda CafÃ©, leaving one less Panda in the world. It had morphed into Cindy Lee CafÃ©, specializing in Chinese and Vietnamese cuisine (Lee, the owner, cooked at CafÃ© Trang). In the process, Lee got rid of the buffet. According to Ann, Lee says about buffets and the questionable freshness of buffet food that customers don’t know how long it sits there: “I know. Sometimes too long. Not fair for customer!” Woks are meant for quick cooking and Lee is a fast cook, so why the need for a buffet?
Customers seem confused about this, however. They still enter Cindy Lee expecting a buffet at lunch. Perhaps that’s due to the cheap-looking food photos in the window, which advertise the restaurant’s dishes. They don’t do justice to the modern, sleek and serene interior of Cindy Lee Cafe, nor the attentive and fast service. Matters of feng shui aside, the food is, as Ann suggested to me, excellent. Cindy Lee’s hot and sour soup ($1.75) is hands-down the best I’ve tasted in Utah, filled with slices of cloud ear mushrooms, silky cubes of bean curd and strips of tender pork. Tofu with assorted vegetables'broccoli, Napa cabbage, snow peas, carrots, and more'is simple and sensational. But my favorite dish is the chicken curry ($6.95): a large bowl filled to the brim with a mild, fragrant, yellow curry swimming in tender, boneless pieces of chicken thigh meat, enough to split four ways easily.
So, pondering the Panda situation overall â€¦ I’ll see you at Cindy Lee’s.
CINDY LEE CAFÃ‰
264 S. Main
1025 W. North Temple