Jul 21, 2014

A Look at Panda Express' New Innovation Kitchen

Panda Express recently opened a new "Innovation Kitchen" here in Southern California as a restaurant where they can test out new concepts and see how a different interior and exterior might work for the Chinese-American food chain. Since it's not too far away, I popped on by to take a look (and try some food of course).

Beside the standard cafeteria-line service with the standard Panda Express fare to choose from, there's new options for a build-your-own wrap or salad complete with new sauces and toppings and a new tea bar, where they can make you a customizable tea drink.

The build-your-own options let you pick a base, a size, a main, and sauces, slaws, and "crunch."

The base options were a salad with a bed of mixed lettuces, a thin scallion pancake wrap, rice (white, brown, or fried), and chow mein.

The available sizes were large (2 mains plus a base) and small (1 main plus a base).

The main selection included Orange Chicken, Beijing Beef, Honey Walnut Shrimp, Kung Pao Chicken Breast, Broccoli, String Beans, Grilled Veggies, Stir-fried Chicken Breast or Angus Steak (with a choice of veggies), and Grilled Chicken or Steak.

Sauce options included Mandarin Sauce, Kung Pao Sauce, Sweet & Sour Sauce, Citrus Ginger Vinaigrette, Green Onion Sauce, Red Chili Sambal

There are two "slaws" to choose from: Pickled Cucumbers and Green Papaya Slaw

Finally to add some crunch, there's Crispy Wontons, Crispy Shallots, and Crushed Peanuts

In addition to the build-your-own option, there were a number of specials: Orange Chicken Salad ($7), Asian Steak Salad ($9), Chinese Chicken Salad ($7), Sweet & Crispy Wrap ($9), and Kung Pao Wrap ($8).

I went for the Orange Chicken Salad and the Sweet & Crispy Wrap so I could get a sense of both the salads and the wraps for you guys.

The Orange Chicken Salad comes with Orange Chicken, pickled cucumbers, shallots, and crispy wontons on a bed of lettuce. It's served with a Citrus Ginger Vinaigrette, which I got on the side. I also had them throw in some peanuts.

The Orange Chicken seemed a good deal spicier than the stuff I normally get from Panda Express. It tasted the same otherwise but maybe they're trying to up the heat to see how it goes.

The cucumbers were just lightly pickled and retains a good bit of crunch. They're similar to what you sometimes might find at some Japanese or Korean restaurants.

The shallots came in crispy bits and added an intense onion-y note. The wontons were recently fried and added a nice crispiness as well. I didn't taste the peanuts so much.

The lettuce might be crispier if it were kept colder I think.

The dressing was surprisingly not that sweet and mostly gingery and tangy.

Overall, the salad was pretty good; orange chicken goes well with lettuce and there's enough crunchy items to provide contrast.

The Sweet & Crispy Wrap features Honey Walnut Shrimp, lettuce, green papaya slaw, and crispy wonton strips, wrapped up in an onion pancake.

It wasn't actually that sweet since it's mostly relies on the shrimp's glaze for that. The shrimp was a decent size and offered the requisite flavor paired with a honey sweetness. The ingredients fit well together for some tasty eats.

The wrap was a little chewy and felt a bit like a moo shu wrapper crossed with a flaky scallion pancake. There's a bit of onion flavor to it from the scallions.

The tea bar featured a number of fruit teas, milk teas, "freezes," and regular teas:

I ended up trying an 16-oz orange fruit tea with tea jelly (fruit and grass jelly were also available).

The tea was fairly strong with a pleasant orange flavor mostly devoid of tartness and bits of orange pulp floating about. The tea jelly was firm and also had a definite note of tea complete with a bit of bitterness. It was $3.25 for the drink, which is in line with what tea shops around here charge.

There's also a dessert display in case you just want tea and cake: