New York City is famous for many signature culinary wonders, many of which I took for granted growing up there. Now that I’ve lived away from home for a few years, my periodic visits to the city have given me the opportunity to capture a newfound appreciation for a number of those delights.
However, on the occasions when I do get back to where I once belonged, there’s only one type of cuisine that I truly begin craving almost immediately. Is it pizza? Nah. The big secret is that you can get tasty pizza almost anywhere now. Anyone still mired in New York vs. Chicago pizza debates might as well be arguing Beatles vs. Stones; it doesn’t matter anymore.
How about bagels? Well, living in the Midwest for awhile and quickly coming to the realization that the closest thing to a decent bagel I could get was at freaking Panera certainly made me miss the way they do circular dough in NYC. But ultimately, I can live well enough without them.
No, what I miss most when I’m away from the Big Apple is, weirdly enough, the takeout Chinese food. I’m not even talking about the famous dumpling joints in Chinatown, or the midtown gourmet spots — just your good old fashioned MSG-drenched, two-weeks-worth-of-recommended-sodium-intake-in-one-sitting Americanized Chinese takeout.
There’s at least one spot dishing out such fare in practically every town in America, but in my cross-country travels I have yet to encounter anywhere that dishes out chow with the same richness of flavor or glorious coating of grease that NYC places do. The best I can ever do is find a decent if pale simulacrum, which is, as far as I’m concerned, a prerequisite for any neighborhood I intend to live in. Indeed, a decent Chinese takeout place is the lifeblood of any great neighborhood. There are many names for places without such amenities. We New Yorkers call them “Staten Island.” And no place wants to be a Staten Island.
Since I moved into Riverside, the search has been on for a place to fill my Chinese takeout craving. Google searches turned up chains like Panda Express and Wok ‘N’ Roll — no thanks. You might as well ask me to eat cardboard. No, I want a family owned joint that’s dingy enough to place the smallest bit of lingering doubt in the back of my mind that it could be a drug front. That’s where the magic happens, and it’s that desire that ultimately let me to Panda House on King Street.
The first thing one notices about Panda House is the sign out front in the middle of the very spacious parking lot that sports a fascinatingly enigmatic message, “Bourbon Chic.” Yes. It would be easy to presume that it’s just an incomplete advertisement for the $6.29 bourbon chicken with broccoli dinner on the menu. But couldn’t it also be something more? Is it some kind of obscure reference to a new fashion trend wherein people pour bottles of whiskey all over themselves and then go walk around town in designer clothing, the smell be damned? Whatever it was, I wanted to know more. Panda House already had me hooked.
Sadly, once I went inside, I did not encounter any boozehound fashion models, but I did find a friendly, soft-spoken, middle-aged lady manning the counter ready to hand me the food I had ordered over the phone just minutes before. Absurdly fast preparation time? Check. Although there was ample dining room space (unusual for the storefront-sized establishments I was used to in New York and elsewhere) I grabbed my order and headed home to undertake a thorough evaluation.
As usual, I avoided ordering overrated Middle American favorites like crab rangoon and General Tso’s chicken in favor of rough approximations of the less sweet stuff I had grown up eating. I started with hot and sour soup ($2.19), a critical component of any well-balanced diet (next time you get a cold, skip the Nyquil and order a big bowl of hot and sour soup instead. It’ll do the trick).
My first bite was one of surprise and delight. The level of spice was unexpectedly strong. The soup had at least as much bite to it as any other bowl of the stuff I’d had in recent memory. So much so, in fact, that it largely overwhelmed the subtlety and balance that should be expected from a truly great hot and sour soup (you know, the “sour” part). But as a lover of spicy food, I wasn’t going to complain, and I was impressed by the boldness of the taste. It boded very well for the rest of my meal.
Disappointingly, there were no steamed dumplings on the menu, which is a travesty and (based on my experience thus far) Panda House’s greatest weakness. There is no excuse for such an omission. A Chinese place without steamed dumplings is like that Velvet Underground album without Lou Reed — missing an essential component. Nonetheless, rather than abandon all hope, I instead decided to make do with what I had available to me and opted for the fried variety of dumpling instead ($4.99). Of course, fried dumplings are an entirely different animal than steamed, little more than a fast food knockoff of actual food. Fortunately, Big Macs are fucking delicious, and these dumplings were pretty good too. The outer shells were wonderfully light and crisp — not too soggy, not too dry. The meat inside was nicely seasoned and flavorful. They went down easy, and I could’ve eaten eight more.
Finally, the time had come for the most critical part of my meal — my roast pork lo mein ($5.59 for a small, $6.99 for a regular). Lo mein is the number one staple of my Chinese takeout diet, and, in my experience, the least effectively replicated outside of NYC. Too much of the lo mein I’ve eaten has been plain and flavorless. If Panda House could avoid the same pitfalls, it would be cause for actual, physical celebration in my living room.
My first couple of bites were somewhat less than satisfying. The broccoli was bland and the noodles dry. But as I dug down further into the precious styrofoam receptacle to where the liquid had accumulated, the flavor started to hit me. The moist pork and the tasty juices began to give my taste buds a hint of what they had been craving since the last time I was in New York. Was it the best lo mein I’ve ever had? Not a chance. But it was close enough.