Fifteen-plus years of griping about Lexington's many "Chinese" restaurants hasn't altered a thing: The unfortunate standard of all-you-can-eat grease, MSG and generic brown sauce stubbornly endures, dismissing millennia of traditional cuisine characterized by layers of texture and flavor, and colorful presentation. The sole beacon of light has been Panda Cuisine.
Under chef Tong Xu, whom many people refer to simply as "the good chef," beauty and taste meet authenticity, oblivious to the fat and starch found elsewhere.
In some ways, Panda might fit the stereotype associated with its genre. There are family-style 10-top tables in a cavernous interior, clanking metal carts as the harried and perfunctory servers whisk away dirty dishes and, of course, requisite red and gold lanterns.
The food, however, is anything but caricature.
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Here, in addition to many dozens of familiar stir-fries, one encounters hot pots, mild or laden with chili peppers. For adventurous diners with a passion for the exotic, the menu abounds with the organ meats that others are too timid to offer, plus tendons, chicken feet and pork ears. Although such options might be a little, um, challenging for the American palate, admit it, aren't you glad that opportunity to experiment exists?
But I digress.
Rich and slurpy sesame noodles with chopped scallions are at their creamy and nutty best at Panda. Sesame seed oil is in just the right ratio to keep this from tasting merely like peanut butter, or thick tahini on steroids.
It's the delicious jalapeño green beans, however, that are truly special. That's such a modest name for a stellar dish. A stir-fried dice of slightly crunchy green beans and jalapeño peppers, spicy but subtle, along with black beans, decadently salty, and bits of brown tofu make this relatively healthy and undeniably addictive.
If this is the starter, you will need to force yourself to save room for entrees.
Allow willpower to prevail.
Asparagus with shredded pork is another understatement for a great accomplishment. Once you have had these slender squiggles of melt-in-your-mouth pork and skinny tender spears of asparagus with just a few juliennes of green and red peppers, you will swear that the result is the fulfillment of culinary destiny. With fresh steamed rice and a couple of cold beers, this makes for a great Sunday night dinner for two.
Everyone knows that most Chinese restaurants are vegetarian-friendly. The trick is getting it right, and Panda's kitchen does a great job.
Tofu and vegetables are simple but deceptive. You need a well-made silky white sauce with not too much salt so all the flavors come through. Every bite of this straightforward entree honors each ingredient. The tofu contributes texture rather than flavor — it is almost leathery outside and fluffy within — but the snow peas, carrots and onions are sweet, the broccoli and button mushrooms earthy, and it all works together to make an uncomplicated, terrific vegetarian meal.
Only a couple items from many visits have been underwhelming. The spring roll with minced cabbage and shrimp, for example, is ordinary, and the fatty Peking duck with stiff, bland and dry pancakes was a disappointment.
Such rare missteps aside, Panda Cuisine has given this town more than a decade of unique and delicious food, evidence of the fact that quality sometimes indeed triumphs over mere quantity.