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Panda Inn

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.

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.

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