506 Horton Plaza, Downtown San Diego
The holiday deluge of relatives hit at gale force during the week after Christmas, bringing my partner's son Gary, his wife Tina, and their four children from the suburban outback northeast of L.A. This incursion presented a trinity of logistical problems: how to lodge, entertain, and feed them for a day. In preference to setting up tents on our front lawn, we put them up at a motel near City College and started the afternoon by turning the kids loose at the beach at the Hotel Del Coronado, followed by early-evening ice skating on the beach-side rink.
Dinner was a tougher decision: The kids range from 7 to 17 and have spent their lives in Palmdale and Lancaster -- not exactly hubs of sophisticated cuisine. They're well-mannered, but I still wanted a place where nobody would be shocked at any possible "kid" behavior. They eat enough fast food in the normal course of life that burgers were out of the question. Plus, the oldest, Chris, has the beginnings of a palate, and little Sara has an adventurous spirit, so we were aiming for a big-city treat without dropping a lot of cash. Initially, I thought we'd eat at Miguel's Cocina, near the Del, but by day's end all four young'uns were dripping with ocean water overlaid with ice water and desperately needed a motel-stop to change into dry clothes.
Then I remembered the Panda Inn at the top of Horton Plaza. I decided it would serve to introduce my step-family to the ancient customs of my people: In New York, tribal gatherings ceremonially conclude with a Chinese feast served around a lazy Susan on a big, circular table. From thence comes the adage: "With six you get egg roll."
With eight at Panda Inn, you get spring rolls -- and lots more. Instead of having to hammer out compromises over the ancestral "four from Column A, three from Column B," Panda offers three prix-fixe banquet menus ranging from $20 to $29 per person. The more sophisticated dishes that I'd normally choose (e.g., salt and pepper shrimp, sizzling-plate scallops and asparagus with black-bean sauce, meatball and Napa cabbage "Lion's Head" casserole) aren't offered on the banquets, but I didn't think the Palmdale contingent would want them anyway. Given the gang's diverse ages and tastes, I suggested that Gary choose one of the banquets. He picked the $20 version because it included the highest percentage of suburb-familiar dishes. We soon found ourselves facing course after course of Mandarin treats calculated, as an assortment, to appeal to every taste, from the naïve to the worldly. Portions proved gigantic, so diners at our table could eat as much as they wanted of whichever dishes they liked best, and we still doggie-bagged enough to feed the whole crowd a second time.
Our banquet began with a cauldron of won ton soup, with a hearty, salty chicken broth (so earthy that Gary took it for beef-barley broth) afloat with crisp water chestnut disks, shrimp, roast pork, mushrooms, and ginger, and slightly gummy won ton skins filled with minced chicken. I'd have preferred classic pork-shrimp won tons, truth be told, and thinner pasta skins. Little Sara loved it but wouldn't eat the shrimps; second-oldest Matthew was happy to liberate them from her bowl.
Next came a quartet of dips: Chinese mustard; thin, tangerine-colored sweet-sour sauce; a dark Hoisin or plum sauce (it tasted sweeter than classic Hoisin, but spicier than plum); and bright red chunky chili-garlic sauce. These accompanied three appetizers. Spring rolls, filled with cabbage, carrots, mushrooms, and sesame seeds, pleased us all: Sara, green eyes aglow, liked them so much, she peeled off the dough layer by layer, to enjoy the crisp pastry before she chomped into the filling. The dip that went best with the rolls was the sweet-sour sauce. Tiny baby-back pork ribs were delightful: Glazed with honey, Chinese five-spice blend (redolent of star anise), and sesame seeds, they were fall-apart tender, and everybody at the table loved them except long, lanky Tina, who'll eat no fat. (Gary and Tina reverse the "Jack Sprat" rhyme.) Pork pot-stickers had very soft skins and a nondescript filling and were supposed to be served with a soy-sesame dip that never showed up. The chili-garlic table sauce saved them from terminal blandness.
Then the entrées started coming, and coming, and coming. My favorite was a combination of eggplant and tofu, a sexy textural mix of slickness and sponginess, robed in a dark, piquant garlic sauce. The seasoning was complex -- perhaps due to the fresh hot peppers and chili sesame oil. I found this the most purely "Chinese" dish we tasted. Chris, who is nearly vegetarian, also liked it a lot.
Mongolian beef with scallions was much spicier, appealing to the budding machismo of 14-year-old Matthew, as well as his dad. It featured red jalapeños, bamboo shoots, and garlic in a soy-based sauce thickened with cornstarch. Actually, all the males warmed to the spicy dish while the Palmdale gals barely touched it. I found it pleasant but ordinary.
Three of the banquet dishes of the Asian-for-Palmdalers mode were tasty for that genre, a reminder that once upon a time these were actual Chinese delicacies, not just grist for the sugar-craving gullets of the blue-eyed devils. I actually enjoyed the orange shrimp (which Panda Inn claims as its own invention), spicier and more complex than its gummy cousins at the 99-cent steam-table joints. Nicole, a glamour girl of 12, went for seconds. In the sweet-sour pork, the pieces boasted crackly-crisp coatings from a dusting of dry cornstarch applied before they hit the deep-fry oil. With no hint of grease, this was a respect-worthy version of a dish I'd never order on my own. Even the cashew chicken with Asian chives, Tina's favorite, was relatively sophisticated, a reminder of why slightly upscale "Mandarin" restaurants seemed so exciting when they first began to supplant Cantonese-American joints in the late '60s. The thick, dark sauce was amended with sautéed bell peppers and water chestnut disks. There was little left by the end of the meal.