Tasty recipes and charming service are customary at the Panda Inn
For 30 years, the Panda Inn has served specialties of Northern Chinese cuisine from its location in the Deer Park Center in Aptos.
Northern China experiences cold, dry winters and hot summers. Wheat grows well there, and is the main source of starch rather than rice. Noodle dishes and steamed buns filled with meat such as barbecue pork are commonplace. The popular Mushu pancakes originated in the region. The cuisine uses numerous seasonings and spices, especially ginger, garlic and green onions. Vegetables are often pickled and preserved.
Panda Inn's menu incorporates these specialties, but also those of other regions, such as Korean Hot Platter Beef, and Indonesian Chicken with Satay sauce.
At Panda Inn, on the heavy wood tables, reusable chopsticks are conveniently held in a thick-walled bamboo vase, while a fork which was folded decoratively into a forest-green cloth napkin sits on each plate. Bamboo of different sizes as well as fabrics are employed to divide the restaurant into smaller dining compartments. Numerous depictions of pandas are displayed, some as poster art or water color, as well as one in stained glass.
Soft instrumental strains of strings and woodwinds played in the background as we ordered our first dish. Our server split a 21-ounce bottle of Tsing Tao beer ($6.75) between two iced mugs, which we sipped from while enjoying our starter and waiting for our tea to brew. Eight Szechwan Dumplings ($6.90), each a ruffle-edged half moon, were stuffed with seasoned meat and then steamed. They were served in a bowl on shredded lettuce, and topped with bits of thinly sliced preserved vegetables and a thin, brown, salty-sweet sauce. A jar of pounded chili sambal added both heat and salt to the appetizer.
Husky chili-flecked nuggets of white meat Tai Chin Chicken ($9.90) were stir-fried with miniature corn cobs, long diagonally sliced strips of celery, and soft but bright green squares of bell pepper. Except for the whole, roasted dried red chilies, this dish would satisfy someone less tolerant of spicy heat.
Gong Bao Beef ($10.90), also known as Kung Pao, was my favorite dish, with circles of crunchy water chestnut and thin, tender slices of beef in a spicy dark sauce with spring onion, crisp peanuts and more dried chilies.
The aesthetic tender Pork with Garlic Sauce ($10.50) was a tribute to the kitchen's skill, as each of the dish's elements was similarly sliced into matchstick pieces. It had a gentle meaty flavor, with celery, green onion, and wood fungus.
Note that the restaurant will be closed until May 1 while the owner returns home to visit relatives in China.
Panda Inn, 783 Rio Del Mar Blvd., Aptos, 688-8620. Serving beer and wine. Open daily from 11:30 a.m. until 9 p.m.
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