Food

Our Favorite From Panda Express Isn’t Here. Here’s Why

Anyone else who’s tried the chain in the U.S. might feel disappointed.
IMAGE PANDAEXPRESS.COM
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I have the fondest memories of Panda Express. It was introduced to me by an aunt on my first visit to America when I was a clueless pre-teen. After eating so many burgers, fries, pepperoni pizza slices, and tacos, here was an Asian restaurant that offered rice. It was a taste of home. It also helped that it had an amusing logo. And I adored the concept of being able to choose viands and sides; it was my Disneyland. It was turo-turo, just like how it was at home, but in America!

I loved its Chow Mein; this is not like pancit Canton! Kung Pao, Broccoli Beef, Eggplant Tofu. Check, check, check! Then there was the Orange Chicken, a work of wonder, and so I thought. It tickled the taste buds of my young self then. I couldn’t get enough of it. That chicken, coated in a crispy, golden batter, then doused in a sticky, sweetish sauce, easily became a favorite. I hankered for it every single day. I wanted to bring it home. 

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It took me about a decade before having it again. In the years between, I daydreamed about it and scavenged for a recipe that claimed to be a legitimate hack. Nothing really came close to the flavors that lingered in my soul. Some were too crunchy, others too sweet, a few without that orange hit. Then came the bottled sauce. Alleluia, I thought. I received my first bottle, all wrapped and secured inside a Christmas balikbayan box, sent by the same aunt that introduced Panda Express to me. What a smart move! Then the bottles appeared here in the Philippines. Imagine how happy I was when I saw crates stacked high of this orange sauce, priced in pesos.

I cooked a batch, coated it in the sauce. It wasn’t the same. How come it didn’t taste like when I first had the dish? It didn’t give me the same satisfaction. Nope. But then I thought it might have been the bottling process. You can’t match something freshly cooked with that. I let it go.

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Some years passed and then early this 2019, I got the chance to fly back to America. There were two restaurants on top of my must-eat list: In-N-Out and Panda Express. Upon arrival, I had my fix of a burger, fries, and shake. I looked out the window and saw the familiar red logo. Panda Express was right across the street! I could just walk out and go there already. I stormed out only to find myself locked out of that Panda Express branch. It was already closing time.

It took me more than a week before I had the chance to finally eat at Panda Express. I ordered a plate with Orange Chicken, Honey Walnut Shrimp, Chow Mein, and Fried Rice. I took it home and had it with a can of chilled Lime LaCroix. I took out my chopsticks, reminisced, and dug in. First, the Orange Chicken. Wait. That’s the Orange Chicken? What happened? This is it? Sure, my taste might have developed with age, but I don’t remember it being this sad. It was all breading, and it wasn’t even crunchy. My teeth hurt after a couple of bites. And that sauce. Where is the orange? Where is the joy? 

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So I pushed all that chicken aside and went for the shrimp. Oh, hell, yes! That was joy. That was happiness. That was an edible rainbow now in my stomach. More, yes, more, please, more. I ended up polishing off that section of the plate. The shrimp was succulent and its breading perfectly light. The sauce had nice, deep tones of honey; not overly sweet actually. The walnuts gave it a nice crunch. I  love a dish with a balance of flavors and textures. This was it. I found a new Panda Express favorite. Everything was back in order. 

Soon after arriving back in the Philippines, news came out that Panda Express was opening in my city. Yes! More Honey Walnut Shrimp for me! I didn’t even bother trying to replicate the dish at home. It was already coming to me. I could have those plump shrimp again in a few months.

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Hello, December, and Panda Express is now open in Manila. But what is this? Where is my favorite? How can the Manila menu not include my favorite Honey Walnut Shrimp? Where is the joy? Where is the rainbow? 

Photo by PANDAEXPRESS.COM.

I can’t believe they’re not giving us the full experience. Sure, there’s Orange Chicken, Asian Grilled Chicken, and Broccoli Beef; 11 entree choices are there. But no Honey Walnut Shrimp! They’re offering Savory Shrimp, a close cousin of my favorite but tossed with green onions and red bell peppers in a savory sauce. No, no. It’s not the same!

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But looking at the local menu here, it might be justifiable. Meals are priced lower than their American counterparts, and that’s a great thing for the local market. I get it. Ingredients for my favorite entree aren’t exactly affordable. Shrimp? Honey? Walnut? Way up there on the scale. Even alternatives to them are as expensive. And I’m betting the good folks behind the local franchise wouldn’t want to diminish the quality of this uber amazing dish.

So here I am hoping that one day I’d be able to eat my Honey Walnut Shrimp again, without having to fly to America. I have a feeling it will come. Filipinos deserve it. They can’t settle for just the Orange Chicken. Don’t! 

Right now, I will wait and wait some more.

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