Orange chicken and broccoli beef have catapulted Panda Express to the top of the Chinese fast food heap. But celebrity chef Ming Tsai is planning to mix things up.
The star of Simply Ming on PBS said he will launch a new Asian fast-casual food chain within a year.
"I’m going to do a better Panda Express, I hope," Tsai told KPCC at the recent C-100 conference in Los Angeles.
The James Beard award winner plans to open his first restaurants in the Boston area, where he lives and has two restaurants. Tsai is mum on the name of the chain, but he said he already has investors, and some of its profits will be turned over to charity. Tsai said cancer patients and their families served by the charity Family Reach will get to eat free at the restaurants.
Another thing he is clear about: His restaurants will have food that "pop," and there will be no "generic brown sauces" that he said muddle the taste of dishes.
"You don’t know if it’s chicken, pork or beef," Tsai said. "And when you can’t even tell, that’s not a good sign."
No word on what Panda Express thinks about Tsai's foray into fast food. The chain didn't respond for requests for comment Tuesday.
Panda Express is based in the San Gabriel Valley, in the city of Rosemead. It's the country's 22nd largest fast food chain, according to QSR, a restaurant trade publication.
Currently, Panda Express dominates the Asian fast food scene with billions of dollars in sales and 1,900 locations.
It's the only Asian food purveyor to crack QSR's top 50 fast food brands. Sam Oches, QSR's editor, said there’s room in the market for another major Asian food chain.
"Here we are rife with Mexican chains from Taco Bell to Del Taco and Chipotle," Oches said. "Why can’t we have that same sort of variety when it comes to Asian food?"
Oches said that Panda Express has risen to the top because it doesn't have any major competitors. Most other Chinese restaurants have happily remained independent family-run operations, whereas Panda Express' founders decided to go large-scale, Oches said.
"The fact that someone like Ming Tsai could try to do something on a national scale is something not a lot of people have done," Oches said.