When reviewing Panda Express, you run into the same problem that you would if asked to critique the color beige. Do you praise it for its flair next to a dull off-white, or do you blast it for paling in comparison to pretty much every other color?
I was curious to try the chain restaurant, located near Hamilton Place mall, mostly to see if I would have any better luck with Panda Express than with the half-dozen other low-cost or buffet Chinese places I had tried in Chattanooga. Those experiences, which had ranged from bad to awful, effectively convinced me that only Formosa on Highway 153 does Chinese food well.
Yet, as I drove out to the mall area, I had my expectations in check. This was not going to be Formosa -- not even P.F. Chang's -- but it was moderately priced, and franchise restaurants are popular for a reason. I was ready to be, if not wowed, at least pleasantly surprised.
Where: Panda Express, 2260 Gunbarrel Road.
Hours: 11 a.m.-9:30 p.m. Sunday-Thursday; 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Friday-Saturday
Price range: $5.49 (one-entree Panda Bowl)-$7.74 (three-entree plate).
Ordering at Panda Express is done in cafeteria fashion, and your first choice is to select the number of entrees you would like. A one-entree meal is called a Panda Bowl, and while two and three entree choices are only labeled as "plates," feel free to refer to them as Panda Plates.
Once you've decided on the size of your meal, you choose a side. Whether you select steamed rice, fried rice, chow mein or mixed vegetables (or any combination of two sides), you will receive a heaping portion that tips your Panda Plate until the entrees are added.
Entree selection is varied and includes Kung Pao Chicken, Broccoli Beef, Orange Chicken, Beijing Beef, Mandarin Chicken and Black Pepper Chicken. Appetizers, including Crispy Shrimp and chicken or veggie egg rolls, may substitute as an entree.
Dessert is limited to complimentary fortune cookies and prepackaged chocolate chip cookies.
The meal consisted of two plates: one with chow mein, Beijing Beef and chicken egg roll, and another with fried rice, Broccoli Beef and Kung Pao Chicken. While the Broccoli Beef was unbelievably bland, the rest of the entrees were quite believable in their mediocrity. The fried rice was solid, but the chow mein tasted oily, and I couldn't eat more than a few bites.
Although we were greeted with a lackadaisical "Welcome to Panda Express," the service was friendly and efficient. We were invited to try any dish before committing to order, which saved us from a Black Pepper Chicken that took its name too seriously. In retrospect, I should have taken more advantage of this and perhaps found a dish that was more to my liking.
Panda Express has a good color scheme of oranges, reds and purples. The cafeteria-style serving line makes ordering easy and fast, and there is outside seating available. The serving area was very clean but, unfortunately, many of the inside tables were dirty, including one that had chunks of food beneath it.
The perfect patron for Panda Express is someone who craves Chinese food, is stuck in the mall area and doesn't want to spend a lot of money. Judged by that criteria, it is the perfect place to enjoy a mostly inoffensive meal in a nice, family-friendly atmosphere. For anyone else, there are other, better, fast-food dining options around Hamilton Place. And if you truly must have Chinese, do yourself a favor and drive to Hixson.