A brand spankin’ new Panda Express restaurant celebrated its Grand Opening about half a mile down the Big Street from us. The good news was, my friend Gary and I got to eat a two-entrée dinner at no charge. The bad news was, the food was barely worth what we paid for it.
Well, perhaps that’s a wee bit harsh. After all, Panda Express – despite the presence of the word “Gourmet” in their tagline - makes no pretense of being a Serious Chinese Restaurant. It’s the Mickey D of Chinee, more at home in a shopping mall food court than as a stand-alone facility.
And it’s attractive enough. Sparkling clean, and staffed with a squad of fresh-faced young man and women. Raw materials – fresh veggies – arranged in clear plastic bins. Bright colors. A restaurant Concept Consultant’s wet dream. Alas, there’s the small matter of the food…
Between us, Gary and I sampled the fried rice (flavorless); the Spicy Thai Shrimp (spicy enough, and colorful, but without anything that would give it a Thai flavor profile); the Mongolian Beef (bland and chewy, lacking the distinctive taste of sweet soy sauce and scallions); and the Signature Dish, Orange Chicken (slightly tough, with a pleasant enough afterburn, but utterly ruined by the cloyingly sweet, gloppy glaze). The local Chinese Take-Out Joint will not lose our business, despite their being another half-mile down the road.
I wasn’t surprised by the insipid food; it’s more or less what I expected. Mall Food. But deep down, I was hoping against hope that there would be a pleasant surprise awaiting us. But, no.
An abiding love for Chinese food was nurtured in the earliest of my Snot-Nose days. Once a week, we’d take a short ride into the neighboring burg of Amityville, there to eat at a greasy little hole-in-the-wall Cantonese place (back then, they were all Cantonese places) called Wong’s.
Wong’s was two doors down from what might have been the Filthiest Bowling Alley in North America, but no matter: The food was ambrosia to the young Elisson. I can still conjure up its homey flavor with perfect clarity. Wonton soup, with cloudlike wontons floating in an ethereal chickeny broth, with shreds of scallion, spinach, and delectable roast pork. Crispy, slightly greasy fried noodles. Crunchy, succulent Roast Pork with Bean Sprouts. Shrimp with Lobster Sauce – or if Dad was feeling flush, Lobster Cantonese.
Dessert was directly from the Standard Chinese-American Restaurant Dessert Handbook and Operating Guide. You could choose between a scoop of ice-chunk-laden chocolate ice cream, served in a little metal dish, or a rectangular block of Concentrated Cherry Jell-O™ with a dot of whipped topping, or an almond cookie. Each choice equally vile, and yet… equally wonderful.
When Wong’s inexplicably fell out of favor from time to time (what did I know about health codes back then, anyway?), we would eat at a more upscale place in the local shopping center – Long Full. The humor of the name never registered on me as a kid. It was pretty much the same food as Wong’s, but in a fancier atmosphere. The waiters would drape folded napkins over their forearms, or some such pretentious shit. And they had the same fucking Red Jell-O Squares.
Over the years, a greater variety of Chinese food came to the shores of America, and I learned to love it all. Szechuan. Hunan. Beijing. I moved to Houston and laughed out loud to see baskets of rolls or sliced white bread on the table instead of the sacred Fried Noodles. And eventually, I began to travel to Asia in the course of business, enjoying Chinese food – and other Asian cuisines – on its home turf, as it were.
Fujianese Duck Tongues. Shanghai Hairy Crab. Singaporean Fish Head Curry. Cantonese dim sum. Indonesian nasi goreng. Peking Duck. Thai panang curry. Not to mention Japanese food in all its fishy glory. Sushi. Robatayaki.
I love it all.
But every so often, I will remember Long Full, long gone now. And Wong’s. Especially Wong’s. I pine for the taste of their Roast Pork with Bean Sprouts, the equal of which I have never found.
That bright, happy, fake-ass Panda? It leaves an empty hole in my soul.
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