Friday, May 16, 2008

Travel Dish: Panda Cuisine (Honolulu)

Straightforward Delivery of Family Dinners
641 Keeaumoku St., Honolulu
Near Ala Moana Center
PH: 808.947.1688
Dim sum for lunch daily from 10:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., dinner from 5 to 10 p.m.
Major credit cards accepted

In my recent tour of Chinese food in Hawaii, I found that there weren’t that many new Chinese restaurants creating a lot of buzz. Most of the popular restaurants serving dim sum or dinner were the same ones that were around in my last visit two years ago.

One of the standbys is Panda Cuisine, which is conveniently located near Ala Moana Center (just a couple of blocks away from the new Nordstrom). The tiny restaurant was once very popular for dim sum, and while it’s still delivers consistent dim sum, I visited for dinner because of its convenient location.

I went for dinner with my mom and older brother, who actually visits the restaurant often with his friends to chow down on whole crabs. We didn’t get any crab (hello, I’m from San Francisco where the crab comes from) but ordered a few dishes to eat family style.

We started with the Crab Meat and Fish Maw Soup. I was curious what fish maw was, and when it came, it looked like the inner glutinous guts. I now remember drinking this as a child and not being very excited about it. For this particular version from Panda, it also failed to excite me. One, because the fish maw is an odd texture to get used to (it’s like eating gelatin), and second, there was hardly any crab meat.

For our entrées, first came the Lamb with Leeks, which my brother recommended. It was a hearty dish, although I noticed they used more the green parts of the leeks instead of the white part. The lamb had a spongy consistency and it lacked any strong flavor that I often associate with lamb. My brother says the restaurant cooked away the lamb flavor because most people in Hawaii don’t like the wild, sometimes gamey flavor. I thought that was the distinctiveness of lamb, so I found it odd that Panda decided to wash out the flavor.

Chinese food is heavy on the meats and seafood, so whenever I suggest to my mom that she orders something with vegetables, she typically goes for a tofu dish, like tofu is a green. So she ordered the traditional Eight Treasures Tofu Pot, which is tofu braised in a claypot with a variety of ingredients (typically eight). The Panda version was tasty and fresh, but was just OK.

Next was Chilean Sea Bass with Vegetables. This is typically how my mom likes fish prepared, basically pan fried quickly with vegetables. But I feel the dish shows a trend in Panda’s cooking style, which is heavy on the cornstarch. It’s a trick of Chinese cooking to use a bit of cornstarch to create some gravy and give the food a nice glaze. But when you add too much cornstarch, it just looks like a sticky mess. The fish itself also didn’t taste fresh.

Our final dish was Chinese Fried Chicken, aka Ja Ji Gai. I had to see this dish so often when growing up because my mom thought we would eat it because it was fried. Of course, all my siblings at it but I would just eat the chicken breast pieces without the skin because even then I had an aversion to fried foods. But when done right, the skin would be so crispy and thin, you would barely notice it. And it’s always served with a bunch of fried shrimp chips, which kids love.

Panda’s version actually was very nice, and it was a pretty large plate of chicken despite the photo showing mostly shrimp chips. It’s often served with a small dish of salt and pepper to sprinkle on top.

Panda promotes itself as a fine dining Chinese restaurant, and it definitely has a formal feel with its cloth-covered tables. But the food doesn’t live up to that designation and instead tastes more like family home-style cooking. While it’s an old reliable spot that’s centrally located, Panda Cuisine may be losing some of its former glory.

Single guy rating: 2.5 stars (Old reliable)

Explanation of the single guy's rating system:
1 star = perfect for college students
2 stars = perfect for new diners
3 stars = perfect for foodies
4 stars = perfect for expense accounts
5 stars = perfect for any guy's dream dinner

Panda Cuisine on Urbanspoon


KirkK said...

Hey Ben - Panda used to be a regular spot when friends got together for Dim Sum when I lived in the Islands. It does seem as if the cuisine may be a bit worse for wear, or maybe tastes have changed a bit.

NotSoccer Mom said...

ahh, i love the shrimp chips...