605 E Northern Lights Blvd.
$6-$15 per plate 11 a.m. to midnight Monday through Sunday, noon to 10 p.m. Sunday
While I've been trying to review restaurants that are off the beaten path, sometimes I stop by places in Anchorage that have a significant local following -- after all, there are reasons why the path has been beaten. Panda Oriental Cuisine sits on Northern Lights Boulevard, in a small building that used to be a Dunkin' Donutsfranchise during the 1980s, just west of its intersection with the New Seward Highway.
Competition in the area is fairly heavy, with Asian fare also available at places like Charlie's Bakery and Ruby's Cafe, a short drive to the west along Northern Lights. The parking lot has left than a dozen spaces, although it's the kind of restaurant whose patrons often overflow to adjacent businesses; usually, parking in the area is near but not at capacity.
There isn't much space at Panda but what's there is used efficiently, with the front cashier's station doubling as a staging area for take-out and delivery orders. The small main dining area is dominated by eight to 10 booths, with a single line of long tables down the center of the room similar to the communal seating arrangements I've seen at Hula Hands Polynesian Restaurant. Tasteful Chinese decor brightens up the intimate space, although the recent addition of a flat-screen TV high along one wall is somewhat distracting even with the volume turned down.With much of Panda's selection of Chinese, Japanese and Korean specialties intended for "family-style" service and sharing among diners, I took a look at the menu's list of lunch specials.
Unlike more limited lunch menus I've seen before, Panda's contains more than two dozen single-entree and multiple-entree choices, all served from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. with the soup of the day and your choice of fried or steamed rice, as well as an egg roll or a fried won ton.
Eventually I decided on Lunch Special No. 27 ($9.95), a combination of Mongolian beef and chicken teriyaki; a cup of egg flower soup was set before me almost immediately after I ordered, with the rest of my meal arriving just as I started on the soup. The egg flower soup was a fine starter course for the meal, less salty and filling than the won ton soup I usually order in Chinese restaurants but still delicious, the chicken-broth base of the soup lending flavor to the egg mixed in as it was cooked. I found myself wanting to add pepper to the soup, only to dredge up some from the bottom of the bowl with my spoon; it was a good portion as well, enough to whet the appetite yet not enough to make eating the food that followed a chore.
I went for the Mongolian beef almost immediately after I was served, since it was easily the most fragrant item on the plate: bits of garlic competed with sliced onions and shoots of green onions to capture my attention, all braised with the beef in a sweet sauce that tempered the onions' strength and bound together the onions with pieces of the meat. The sauce seeped into a small bed of dry rice noodles upon which the beef was served, making the last few mouthfuls vaguely reminiscent of yakisoba as some of the noodles soaked up its flavor.
I found the teriyaki chicken a slightly more bland counterpoint to the beef, strips of chicken grilled black in spots sitting beneath a drizzle of slightly salty teriyaki sauce. It's a different method of preparation than that of Fukumaru Teriyaki in Spenard, which marinates and cooks its teriyaki chicken, with strengths and weaknesses: while the taste of the teriyaki sauce is stronger uncooked it doesn't suffuse the meat, which makes it feel like it's not a coherent dish the way the beef is.
Alongside the two portions of meat was a heaping helping of fried rice, the default side choice since I'd forgotten to specify which type I wanted. While I'm usually a steamed-rice devotee since fried rice can get heavy fast, Panda's was light and fluffy throughout, with peas and diced carrots balancing out the rich flavors fried into the rice. The small and crisp egg roll on the edge of the plate was a similar story, its blend of cabbage and bean sprouts within clearing the palate once its outer coating gave way.
It really hasn't been a matter of if but when I'd visit Panda, given its central location and wide array of dishes available to local diners during the lunch rush. An added surprise was the speed of my service, which I've seen during quiet dinners but didn't assume I'd see maintained through a weekday lunch rush.
As I rose to head back to the station, the dining room filling up with hungry customers, I considered how the restaurant exemplified the piece of wisdom I'd just received from the fortune cookie delivered alongside my bill: "If you continually give, you will continually have."
Contact Chris Klint