I Tried Panda Express For The First Time Ever And Was Seriously Underwhelmed

There's no real reason why I've managed to go through most of my life without ever having visited a Panda Express. While I do love authentic Sichuan cuisine (chicken in spicy numbing sauce, yum!), I've eaten plenty of strip mall Chinese food, too, and have a special place in my heart (and stomach) for the kind of retro restaurant that offers pu pu platters and tiki drinks. I guess I'd just never visited a Panda Express before because there have always been other options available when I want Chinese food. Still, this chain seems to be so popular with so many people — especially their famous orange chicken — that I thought I might as well give it a try.

My first impression was one of mild surprise. For some reason, I was expecting more of a dine-in type place, but the ambiance was strictly grab-and-go. I ordered a Bigger Plate with three entrees and two sides (one portion, but a 50/50 split), as well as all three appetizers on the menu, and the total came to about $16. Not the cheapest fast food meal, but the portions were very generous and actually lasted me for two days. This allowed me to try the food when it was warm and fairly fresh, but also to have enough left to enjoy it in my preferred style for takeout Chinese: a day old and straight from the fridge.

The appetizers were meh

The first thing I ate was one of the cream cheese rangoons, which I mistakenly kept calling crab rangoon. To give Panda Express its due, the chain does not pretend that there's any crab or even "krab" involved. That's okay, since the crunchy fried dough and slightly sweet whipped cream cheese filling was plenty tasty, at least when the rangoons were hot. I was given 3 ½ of these since they were the last ones in the tray, and the one I ate in the parking lot (I was hungry) was delicious (probably because I was hungry). I ate one at room temperature an hour or so later which was okay, too, but the day-old one was a bit past its prime.

The chicken egg roll was perfectly fine, and just the right size. I don't like egg rolls that are too fat since it then becomes painfully obvious that the filling is mostly cabbage. With this mid-sized egg roll, though, the cabbage didn't completely overwhelm the chicken and the outside stayed fairly crispy until I was done eating. The veggie spring rolls, however, were very meh. I don't even know what kind of vegetables were in the filling as the whole thing was pureed into mush. Too much of a mush, as it seemed to make the wrappers soggy, as well.

The side dishes were boring

I really appreciate that Panda Express allows you to split a single side into two half-portions, although admittedly this isn't something I would have done if I wasn't trying to sample as many menu items as possible. And, the choices did not thrill me — broccoli is a big nope for me, and white or brown rice is just going to go uneaten unless there's a lot of sauce that needs sopping up (there wasn't). I opted for fried rice instead, which, while slightly more interesting than plain rice, is still a pretty unexciting side. Panda Express' was no exception — dry rice with cabbage and peas, very boring.

My other side was chow mein, and I did like this since it was nice and noodly. It didn't have a really strong flavor to it but had just enough soy sauce to make it fairly tasty. If the chow mein included some meat and a little more sauce, it might even work as an entree, but as it is, it's a pretty serviceable side that's equally enjoyable whether warm or cold.

The main dishes were a mixed bag

The first entree I sampled was the Beijing beef, which is marked with a little hot pepper on the menu.  So, I thought that meant it was supposed to be somewhat spicy. It wasn't. Not even a little bit. But, it was bready, and the bread absorbed most of the flavor. The meat had no recognizable beefiness to it and didn't really taste like much of anything, and it was kind of tough. It reminded me of chicken fried steak, and not in a good way (I'm not a fan of that, either.)

Next up was the kung pao chicken, which is my go-to order at most Chinese restaurants. Panda Express' version wasn't the worst I've had, but it was far from the best. The heat was fairly prominent, but not overly so, quite a nice level. Sadly, it was the only dominant note in the sauce, which could really have used a little something. Rice vinegar, maybe? Soy sauce? Oyster sauce? Something other than just dried chiles. Still, the chicken itself was fairly tender, and the vegetables consisted mostly of peppers and onions, which I liked. (I hate it when restaurants ruin my favorite dish with broccoli.) The peanuts, however, were few and far between, which was too bad since they're an integral part of the dish.

I cannot stand their orange chicken

Finally, I tried that orange chicken that everyone seems to rave about, and frankly, I don't get the hype. It was not absolutely terrible — I was fearing it might be a sweet, syrupy mess, but it turned out to be less sugary than I was expecting. Unfortunately, it had a strange sourness to it that wasn't too pleasant even though I'm generally a fan of sour flavors. Some bites were slightly bitter, as well, perhaps from an excess of orange zest.

The worst part of the orange chicken, though, was that it was just as bready as the beef. It, too, had a tough and chewy texture, one that was completely unlike that of the chicken in the kung pao. While the texture was less noticeable when the chicken was still warm, it started to seem slightly rubbery as it cooled. What with its odd flavor and unpleasant texture, I probably won't be ordering Panda Express' orange chicken again and I definitely won't be joining its fan club.

It's unlikely I'll visit Panda Express in the future

Taking into consideration the amount of food I got, Panda Express wasn't a bad bargain for takeout Chinese, plus the very quick service beats having to sit awkwardly and wait for your order to be filled. (I never order ahead since I have this weird fear that paying before I get my food will jinx me into getting into an accident that prevents me from picking it up.) It's possible that the ease of ordering may prompt me to visit a Panda Express again sometime, although the food alone would not tempt me back.

If I do re-visit Panda Express, though, I'll put a lot more thought into what I order. I'll skip the boring rice in favor of the far more flavorful chow mein, I'll probably pass on the apps, too, and, most importantly, I will remind myself to read the menu descriptions! Never again will I order anything breaded since my jaws don't need that much of a workout.