Panda Express is a successful fast-food chain that introduced Asian food to the American consumer and by doing so pulled their unique cuisine out of the fringes and into the culinary mainstream. In the first part of these series of articles, we covered the origins of Panda Express and how the owners, college sweethearts, take care of their workforce and push for technological advances in their chains. In this part, we continue our coverage of this popular fast-food franchise. We reveal some secrets that even the most die-hard patrons of Panda Express may not know about. As usual, we don’t shy away from the dark or unsavory truths. Our goal is always to inform and enlighten as well as entertain.
10. Panda Express has Healthy Food Choices
At the time when the fast-food business is shrinking everywhere, Panda Express is actually expanding. With over two thousand outlets in the US, the franchise is breaking the norms. But that doesn’t mean that all the food you eat there is good for you. Health-wise, fast food is not really the best option. You probably read in the news recently about the teenager who lived on a diet of ham, cheese, and fast food which made him go blind and lose most of his hearing as well. Even with the growing trend among fast-food giants to clean up their menu and offer healthier choices, one still has to be really picky when it comes to eating at a fast-food outlet. So what are the healthy choices you can have at Panda Express? First off, if you’re a vegetarian, you’d better steer clear of the chain. None of their food is for vegetarians. Now for those like me who can’t live without a chicken breast or a rip eye, Panda Express has many food items that won’t clog your arteries. These include mixed veggies, chicken and chicken breast entrees, and broccoli beef if you don’t mind the broccoli. Surprisingly sweet and sour pork is on the healthy menu. If you like shrimp then go for the tangy shrimp. The whole dish only has seven grams of fat.
9. And Unhealthy Choices Too
So we mentioned some of the healthy food choices Panda Express has to offer. But what about the less healthy ones? Since we brought it up, let’s see what food items you should avoid at all costs when you’re having a meal there. One of the first things to totally ignore when you look at the menu to order is the rice and noodle dishes. None of them are even remotely healthy. We’re talking about the fried rice and even steamed white rice. This last one is full of empty calories, nothing more. The same ban should cover the famous, or infamous, chow mein. It has enough sodium to send your physician into a hissy fit. The list of bad food also includes veggies like popular eggplant and tofu. This harmless looking dish has too much fat and more than enough sugar to make it truly worthy of the name, junk food. Moving on to beef. There are two beef items you should totally avoid. These are the Beijing beef and Mongolian beef. The BBQ pork is also too bad for your poor heart. As for seafood, you should never consider ordering the honey walnut shrimp, the kung pao shrimp, or the crispy shrimp. And while we’re there, don’t scan the appetizers and soups menu because everything there will conspire against your cardiovascular system.
8. The Owners are both Immigrants
We all know that not all the Asian food we eat is not made by people from Asian countries any more than the pizza we enjoy is made by Italians. Authenticity and originality are no longer a prerequisite in this day and age. And especially as far as fast food is concerned. To be honest, it’s hard to imagine people in China used to eat many of the items on the Panda Express menu in their day to day life. We all accept that and still enjoy the Mexican food, Thai food, and Chinese food we eat at the Americanized restaurants that dot our cities and towns. But what might come as a surprise to you is that both Andrew and Peggy Cherng the owners of Panda Express are immigrants who hail from Asia. To be fair, Andrew is more of a global person than one confined to a single culture or society. He was born in Yangzhou, China but spent most of his childhood moving between Japan and Taiwan. He later came to the US to study and that’s where he met Peggy at college. Peggy was born in Burma but spent her early years in Hong Kong. This multicultural background of both owners is reflected on their menu as well. The food you eat there has its roots in different Asian cuisines and cultures, not just the Chinese kitchen.
7. It Wasn’t Meant to be a Restaurant
Few people in life know where they want to take their life right from the get-go. We start with no clear idea of what we would want to do with our lives. Many years later, and after many false starts, we might stumble into our mission in life by chance. And those are the lucky ones. Yet there are some who never find their passion and settle for whatever place they find available under the sun. The reason I bring this up is that before Panda Express was on the horizon, both Andrew and Peggy had totally different plans for their lives. Peggy was getting a Ph.D. in electrical engineering and Andrew was working on his master’s in applied mathematics. After getting her degree, Peggy worked as a software developer at 3M and McDonnel Douglas aerospace manufacturing. She even joined the US Navy as a programmer for a while. Neither of them had any dreams about owning or running a restaurant. Theirs were white-collar jobs and spending their hours staring at the computer screen. If you had told them that in a few years they would be the owners of a fast-food chain with a couple of thousand outlets, they’d probably laughed right in your face.
6. Try the Live Test Kitchen
Unlike other fast-food chains where new menus items are being planned in secret kitchens behind coded doors guarded by heavily armed ex-Marines (that’s how they show it in the movies), Panda Express likes to test their food in an outlet in Pasadena, California. It’s called the Innovation Kitchen and as the name implies, this is the place where food meets technology and the genius of creative chefs. But it’s not just food that gets tweaked around. Innovation covers every aspect of the fast-food chain. From what music to play to the staff uniforms. But mainly it’s new dishes that attract fans of the Chinese food chain. People go there to try out new dishes. Of course, not all of these dishes find their place on the official menu. Many don’t even make it past the trial stage. But people enjoy it. They enjoy being part of the whole experience. They try the new dishes, give their feedback and walk out happy. And for the chefs, they couldn’t be happier too. They get live feedback to their creations right then and there. This helps them tweak their dishes, and figure out what is wrong with the item which wasn’t to people’s liking. When you think about it, this is how should all fast food giants test their new menus. Let the customers have their say before you surprise them with something that could either be a hit or a miss.
5. So Many Outlets
We mentioned that Panda Express has over 2,000 outlets all over the country. Does that mean there are as many malls still open in the US? Not necessarily. And, honestly, I don’t think anybody knows the exact number of malls right now considering that strip malls are so 1990s. But back to our food franchise. Not all of these outlets are to be found in malls. In other words, you don’t have to go to a mall to find an outlet. Far from it. Just like other fast-food giants such as McDonald’s and KFC, Panda Express has lots of stand-alone outlets. With so many outlets, the chances of you having one near you are quite high. Even if you have not seen a freestanding Panda Express before, that might have to do with the fact that you weren’t looking. Many people only look for Panda Express in food courts. But in reality, the chain has outlets in places such as airports, college campuses, airports, and even theme parks. So the next time you’re taking a local flight, go look for Panda Express to enjoy one of their healthy meals before the food on the plane puts you off altogether.
4. Bubble Tea is Making a Splash
Go to any restaurant or cafe that serves casual food and look around. Chances are you’ll find a cup of bubble tea on the table next to you. This refreshing drink has caught people’s imagination and is spreading all over the country at a high pace. And that’s something that Panda Express didn’t miss. In fact, they decided to get on the bubble tea train as well. The only problem is you won’t get this fabulous drink at just about any outlet. Only a few restaurants offer these beverages. How do you know if the one you just entered serves your favorite tea or not? Easy. If you find a Panda Tea Bar then you’re in luck. There you can order anything from milk tea, shakes, coffees, teas, and smoothies. That’s not all. As part of the Panda Tea Bar fun, you can also mix your drink with chia seeds, pudding, boba, jelly, or aloe vera. Say what you like about tea, it’s a healthier option than sodas. At least you know what’s in your cup. Tea leaves, water, and sugar. But soda is a whole different ball game. What Pepsi and Coca Cola put in their beverages is beyond me. No wonder it’s a secret. So if you ask me, I’d say, better the devil you know. Tea it is, then.
3. Next Stop: Pizza
One of the common features that all fast food chains share is the tendency to explore new culinary territories that may not even be related to their core business. We have seen McDonald’s venture into the pizza world and fail. But it seems that such a debauched attempt didn’t deter Panda Express from attempting the same feat. Recently the chain has acquired two other franchises. The first is Pieology Pizzeria and the other is Just Salad. So what does this mean to the American-Asian food fans? Will we one day see pizza served in Panda Express? Will salads and green take their rightful place on the menu? It’s still too early to tell. For one thing, the Panda Express pizza experiment is different from the McDonald’s one. McDonald’s was serving pizza along with its other trademark items all in the same outlet. But here we have the pizza pies in its own outlet with nothing to connect them to orange chicken expect ownership. What is clear is that eventually both menus will overlap and we might see novel items being introduced in both franchises.
2. Millions of Fortune Cookies
The most famous item to come out of Chinese cuisine is probably the fortune cookie. True to its origins, Panda Express serves this delicacy in its restaurants all over the country. And they’re in demand. It seems nobody can think of themselves dining at Panda Express without cracking open a fortune cookie to know what awaits them in the future. To give you an idea of how popular they are, it is estimated that every year about 282 million fortune cookies are handed out to customers. That’s an amazing figure. And due to their popularity, the chain has renamed them ‘fortunate cookies’. The messages they carry are always happy and optimistic ones. It’s the best way to end a meal. To read something motivating and cheerful to lift you up. Even those who don’t believe in fortune cookies seem to delight in it. Maybe it’s the crunchy cookies or maybe we all just like to finish our meal on a high note.
1. The Early Roots of Panda Express was a Sit-Down Restaurant
The last truth we’ll end this article with has to do with the very early origins of Panda Express. When the Cherngs started flirting with the idea of opening a restaurant, they were smart enough to start small. It was a sit-down restaurant in Pasadena. Nothing fancy. Simple delicious food and good service. That’s how far their culinary dreams were willing to take them. It was 1973 and the menu was inspired by traditional dishes from Mandarin and Sichuan cuisine. It was hard work and the only way they could tell if a menu item was a hit or a miss was by getting direct feedback from the customers. But soon they were opening more sit-in restaurants in other spots. People loved their authentic food and couldn’t get enough of these flavors. The rest, as they say, is history.