Panda Express: Becoming the Standard for Chinese Drive-Thrus

You’re in a strange city and you want Mexican food but you don’t know where to go and who to trust. There’s always Taco Bell. You’re in the mood for chicken, but where to go? There’s always Popeye’s, KFC or Church’s. Want Italian? Look in the phone book and find the nearest Olive Garden. Pizza? Papa John’s, Domino’s or Pizza Hut. Need a long sandwich filled with cold cuts? Subway. Hamburger? Burger King, Wendy’s or good old McD’s. But what if you get a craving for Chinese food? Sure, every town worth its salt will have at least a dozen Chinese restaurants, but the quality of Chinese food varies even more than Mexican food. You want something reliable, something you can trust, a brand name. When it comes to national branding, somehow corporate America dropped the ball on Chinese food. That may be about to change.

Panda Express is probably making plans to open a drive-thru in your city, if you don’t have one already. With over 700 restaurants in 39 states already, you may very well be familiar with this growing chain’s delicious brand of Chinese cooking. Panda Express offers familiar standbys such as chow mein and Kung Pao along with their delicious signature dish, Orange Flavored Chicken. In addition to the regular menu items, the restaurant also makes a point of offering a new entrÃ?©e to customers each month.

As a drive-thru proposition, it might surprise you to find out that Chinese food takes no longer to prepare and serve than any other kind of restaurant and with no reduction in the taste. The standard order is their two or three entree plate. You get your choice of entrees along with your choice of steamed rice, fried rice, chow mein or mixed veggies. The entrees include the orange chicken, chicken with mushroom, kung pao chicken, mandarin chicken, beef with broccoli, or sweet and sour pork. Of course, no self-respecting Chinese restaurant could get away with not offering egg rolls or soup and Panda Express is deserving as great respect. Participating locations even offer a kids’ meal which includes a mini combo, drink, fortune cookie and a coloring book.

But let’s get to the basics. How is the food? Does it hold up to your local Chinese restaurant? Well, tastes vary and I can’t speak for everyone, but the orange chicken ranks among the best Chinese food I’ve ever tasted and I’ve yet to meet anyone who said they didn’t think the food was delicious. (Did I mention that the serving sizes are equal to most sit-down restaurants?) That being said, I must admit that the fortune cookie left much to be desire.

Personally, I’m not a big fan of generic, homogenized food. If you’re in a new city, I think you should test out the local cuisine. But sometimes you just don’t have the time and you want to rely on something tried and tested. I predict that it’s only a matter of time before Panda Express becomes the Chinese food equivalent of Taco Bell. Whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing will remain to be seen, but at least the leading candidate for the McDonaldsization of Chinese food is producing very good food.

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