The climax of the banquet was tea-smoked duck, which arrived shredded, with the accouterments typically served with roasted Peking duck: shredded scallions, thin-sliced cucumber, and dainty steamed buns for making sandwiches. Disappointingly, the duck meat was dry, the skin flabby and fatty -- the opposite of Peking duck -- so the bun treatment seemed inappropriate. Even the dipping sauce tasted too sweet, and the cucumbers were limp. These garnishes highlighted the duck's weaknesses, not its strengths. The positive side: The faint smokiness of Lapsang Souchong black tea was pleasantly exotic. Sara had never tasted duck before. Grandpa gave her a clean, skinless piece. She liked it enough to ask for seconds.
Last and least was kitchen-sink lo mein -- thick, house-made Shanghai egg noodles (as fat around as udon) with bamboo shoots, mushrooms, nicely sautéed sliced beef, Chinese cabbage, and spinach in yet another soy-sauce gravy.
What I liked was that $20 per person bought a huge and decent dinner. What I didn't like: Nearly all our entrées fell into two categories of sauce, either spiced-up sweet-sour or spiced-up cornstarch-thickened soy, both obscuring the natural flavors of the ingredients. This was a fault specifically of the banquet menu -- as mentioned earlier, a number of à la carte dishes promise greater subtlety and lightness for diners unburdened by backwoods kinfolk or passels of young'uns.
The wine list is conventional and not especially suited to Asian cuisine: There are decent California Chardonnays and Sauvignon Blancs and various reds by the bottle or glass, but no Gewürtz, Riesling, or Vouvray -- fruitier whites that get along well with spices. Given the choices, I went for a "fresh-fruit margarita," which tasted good and was weak enough to earn a PG-13 rating. Maybe the bartender was careful to keep Granny sober in front of the kiddies. The guys downed beers, and the kids drank raspberry lemonades and sodas.
Full to the brim, we passed on dessert (vanilla ice cream comes with the banquet) but got a kick out of the fortune cookies -- they were streaked with a tasty vanilla glaze. That evening ended happily for me when the whole Palmdale contingent chorused that the food was good -- "Way, way better than the Great Wall." I guess that's their local best Chinese! I've never eaten there, but yes, I'm sure Panda Inn is indeed way better.
THE MYTH OF MANDARIN CUISINE
Panda Inn specializes in the style known as "Mandarin cuisine," putatively the prerevolutionary royal dishes of Beijing's Forbidden City, centering on the cooking of northern China. There's a certain amount of confabulation in this description. First of all, the palace often favored Cantonese chefs from southern China, just as the Ottoman Turk moguls preferred Armenian chefs. (You conquer an area, then you hire its best cooks.) Dim sum, for example, was invented by Cantonese palace chefs for the "Empress of China," that fearsome Manchu dowager with the 20-inch fingernails. As for authentic northern Chinese cooking, when's the last time you saw boiled millet on a restaurant menu?
Nonetheless, the style called Mandarin does highlight the food of the prosperous merchant and bureaucrat classes of the northern provinces, with more meat dishes (vegetables separate, as in the west), darker gravies with a higher percentage of soy sauce, and more hot pepper than Cantonese cuisine -- e.g., dishes like Mongolian beef. It also includes some deluxe palace dishes such as minced squab in lettuce cups and mushu pork. And, as with the food of any national capital (always a magnet for ambitious provincials), Mandarin cuisine includes favorite dishes from other regions, such as Shanghai's "Lion's Head" casserole and Szechwan's kung pao.
In the western hemisphere, before Mandarin cuisine arrived, pragmatic Cantonese immigrants dominated the Chinese restaurant business, serving southern Chinese peasant cuisine adapted to New World ingredients and tastes. Northern Chinese food hit the big time in the 1960s, when the elegant Cecilia Chiang created a stir with the Mandarin in San Francisco's Ghirardelli Square. There may have been other restaurants serving this cuisine, but the Mandarin's precise, masterful cooking, upscale decor, and Chiang's charismatic persona made the genre chic. Soon, "Mandarin" cuisine was viewed as a high-class alternative to plebeian Chinese-American.
Mandarin restaurants awakened Americans to the world beyond chow mein and egg foo yong. But in cities with large Chinese populations, like New York, Vancouver, and San Francisco, their faddishness faded as new generations of chefs arrived from Szechwan, Hunan, Shanghai, and Hong Kong to open authentic, distinctly regional restaurants. In areas like San Diego, with a chronic shortage of fresh Chinese immigrants, a Mandarin-Szechwan-Hunan-Shanghai hodgepodge became the dominant mode -- like most of our upscale Italian food, a multiregional compendium of favorite dishes, universally offered on cookie-cutter menus.
Some 30 years ago, Panda Inn was founded in Pasadena by owner Andrew Cherng and his father, master chef Ming-Tsai Cherng (probably an immigration agent's spelling of the more common Cheung). The restaurant, which grew to five locations in So-Cal, became one of the pioneers of the food fad that seized hold of this region and has never let go. Each location has its own head chef, with a few specialties of his own, but all epitomize the myth of Mandarin cuisine. Some 11,000 Panda Express fast-food spin-offs have institutionalized it.