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Panda Express wants to redefine what Chinese food is to Americans




An orange chicken scallion pancake wrap is one of several newly developed dishes at the Panda Express Innovation Kitchen in Pasadena. It has pickled cucumbers, crispy wontons and salad greens.
An orange chicken scallion pancake wrap is one of several newly developed dishes at the Panda Express Innovation Kitchen in Pasadena. It has pickled cucumbers, crispy wontons and salad greens.
Maya Sugarman/KPCC

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The future of Chinese food might be found by looking into the past.

Americans are probably familiar with dishes like egg foo young, but Southern California has a large Chinese immigrant population where ma po tofu and congee are on menus, too.

And the nation's biggest Chinese restaurant chain Panda Express wants to introduce those traditional foods to the whole country.

"Panda Express, in starting 35 years ago, has the opportunity to be the ambassador of Chinese food to many people," says Andrea Cherng, the company's Chief Marketing Officer.

In 1973, her parents Andrew and Peggy Cherng first opened the sit-down restaurant Panda Inn in Pasadena, nestled among the Chinese immigrant communities of the San Gabriel Valley.

The original Panda Express restaurant first opened in 1973, a decade before the family expanded into a restaurant group.
The original Panda Express restaurant first opened in 1973, a decade before the family expanded into a restaurant group. "What I love about Chinese food is family dining," says Chief Marketing Officer Andrea Cherng. Several formal family dining rooms line the sides of the original restaurant.
Maya Sugarman/KPCC

After a decade of success, it spawned a fast-casual version called Panda Express at the Glendale Galleria in 1983, which now has more than 1,900 additional locations throughout the world.

And the single most popular dish is its orange chicken, which it developed by blending together cuisines its then-head chef tasted from both China's Sichuan province and Hawaii.

Cherng thinks she can use the company's large market share to get America eating cuisine her friends and family grew up on – and perhaps discover the next orange chicken.

Popularizing ma po tofu is one goal on her list for the future, for example.

"Tofu is not a common protein for much of the U.S.," she says, "and there is a part of me where I would think it would be exceptional if Panda would be the first to bring in excellent ma po tofu to Americans and have them experience a staple that many of us in the San Gabriel Valley take for granted."

That dream is down the road, but her first real step is with cōng yóu bing, also known as a scallion pancake.

Jimmy Wang, director of culinary innovation, holds a scallion pancake-inspired wrap he helped to develop at the Panda Express Innovation Kitchen in Pasadena. The pancake is about 12-and-a-half inches in diameter.
Jimmy Wang, director of culinary innovation, holds a scallion pancake-inspired wrap he helped to develop at the Panda Express Innovation Kitchen in Pasadena. The pancake is about 12-and-a-half inches in diameter.
Maya Sugarman/KPCC

"What's distinctive about a scallion pancake is that there's a buttery taste to it," says Cherng.

It's very crispy, too, and deliciously greasy to the touch. Traditionally you eat it alone with a dipping sauce, but Panda Express has tweaked the recipe to use them in burritos served at their experimental restaurant Panda Express Innovation Kitchen, just blocks away from the original Panda Inn.

"We took a cōng yóu bing and widened it into a wrap," she says. "Into that wrap, or bing, you can put in all of your Panda Express favorites."

It's also less oily because of customer feedback, and made to be more flexible than flakey. Then you can then fill it with whichever entree you choose, like orange chicken, and you've got a Panda Express burrito.

"It is something that is a little bit more recognizable, whether you call it a wrap or tortilla, and incorporating it in this way helps people," says Cherng. "We're very excited about sharing a scallion pancake – a cōng yóu bing – with a wider audience."

The scallion pancake wrap is only available as an option at a handful of locations in Southern California (the Panda Express Tea Bar locations in Pasadena, Hacienda Heights, Westwood and Monterey Park).

Andrea Cherng, left, is chief marketing officer and Jimmy Wang is director of culinary innovation for Panda Express. The restaurant group first started in 1983.
Andrea Cherng, left, is chief marketing officer and Jimmy Wang is director of culinary innovation for Panda Express. The restaurant group first started in 1983.
Maya Sugarman/KPCC

But if it's successful locally, the company will start thinking how to mass produce and market them around the country.

"The best that American Chinese food can bring to bear is taking parts of the past – the flavors that we know – and bringing it forward in original ways," says Cherng.

There are many more recipes that Cherng and Panda Express's innovation chef Jimmy Wang have been testing out, too.

Beef Brisket Stew, inspired by hóng shāo niú ròu

A Taiwanese braised brisket beef stew is one of several new dishes being tested at the Panda Express Innovation Kitchen in Pasadena.
A Taiwanese braised brisket beef stew is one of several new dishes being tested at the Panda Express Innovation Kitchen in Pasadena.
Maya Sugarman/KPCC

"It's something I grew up with in Taiwan," says chef Jimmy Wang, who based the recipe off of what his mother and grandmother made for him. "Every mom has their own version, and we want to introduce our own."

In this dish, the meat is cooked sous vide for 10 to 12 hours. It is also slightly sweeter than a traditional American beef stew.

Diced daikon radishes take the place of russet potatoes, and he also stirs bonito fish flakes into the pot.

Available only at the Panda Express Innovation Kitchen in Pasadena.

Sparkling Strawberry Sorbet and Sparkling Mango Sorbet, inspired by yǎnglèduō

Panda Express Tea Bar will be serving a sparkling sorbet, based on a fizzy yogurt drink in Asia, at all its locations this July.
Panda Express Tea Bar will be serving a sparkling sorbet, based on a fizzy yogurt drink in Asia, at all its locations this July.
Panda Express

This is based off of a yogurt soda drink that Wang and his friends grew up sipping on in Asia.

Fruit purée is layered on the bottom of a cup. Then sparkling water is poured on top, finished off with a layer of yogurt.

Finally, customers can swirl it together into one fizzy, refreshing drink.

It also got a new name at Panda Express: a sparkling sorbet.

"It has a traditional origin, but we translated it and used words that people can understand as a way of describing it," says Cherng. "It becomes an approachable way for people to try something they've never seen before."

Available only at the Panda Express Innovation Kitchen in Pasadena, but will expand to 39 Panda Express + Tea Bar locations throughout the country in July

Crème Brulee Milk Tea, inspired by jiāo táng nǎichá

A crème brûlée boba milk tea is one of several new tea drinks being developed at the Panda Express Innovation Kitchen in Pasadena.
A crème brûlée boba milk tea is one of several new tea drinks being developed at the Panda Express Innovation Kitchen in Pasadena.
Maya Sugarman/KPCC

Boba is a familiar sight in major cities like Los Angeles, but it's probably a rare thing to see in parts of the country.

So Panda Express is experimenting with a new milk tea with chewy tapioca pearls gathered on the bottom.

"Its origin is Taiwanese milk tea," says Cherng, "and the twist is that we're introducing a crème brulee flavor."

Available only at the Panda Express Innovation Kitchen in Pasadena, but will expand to 39 Panda Express + Tea Bar locations throughout the country in July