Let’s hear it for a long overdue shoutout to Panda Express, where any food item can be made “Chinese” by being fried with chilis and smothered in syrup. Their standard 2-item combo is more calories than any one person should consume, and even their vegetarian items are cooked in meat stock and thus not really vegetarian. But they have their good side too: Panda is the only reason I ever tried either eggplant or tofu; now their combination of both is one of my favorite things, albeit only if it’s overcooked to shit. And they give you fortune cookies, which I really do enjoy for the flavor, which I know is like saying I read Playboy for the articles (I used to; got tired of the plasticky sheen on the women after I finally got with a real one).
Panda loves to bust out new shrimp items, mainly because they can tack on a surcharge to any item containing this “premium” ingredient. Usually I won’t bite – honey walnut shrimp are an item I’ve had at the tonier but same-owned Panda Inn, and they were TOO syrupy – but having seen so many ads for the new Samurai Surf and Turf, I figured it would make a change from the usual fast food haunts. Not that you really need a review, since Panda will give free samples, but I need to change up my lunch sometime. And write words. So like eating surf and turf, I get two needs met at once.
I grew up with an uncle and aunt who run a restaurant that mixes Southern cooking, steaks and barbecue with Asian influences (my lifelong love of Tuong Ot Toi sauce is thanks to them, and I much prefer it to its smoother cousin, sriracha), so I’m well familiar with their concept of surf and turf – a filet mignon and a lobster. Since each is a meal in itself, it always seemed the height of gluttony and/or impossibility to order it. But you won’t be surprised to know that panda’s version is not that.
Instead of lobster, shrimp. Instead of a steak, bits of “Angus” beef. In amidst them, a rag bag of ingredients that feel like leftovers either from other dinners, or a Denny’s breakfast skillet – red peppers, green beans, potato cubes that sometimes still have skin on. The flavors don’t cohere into anything greater, despite the inevitable syrupy sauce – the shrimp flavor dominates, and since you’re paying extra for it, that’s not the worst thing in the world. The beef is super-tender, not chewy at all, which just makes me wonder what chemicals were in the cow, since I know for a god-damned fact this can’t be wagyu, despite the chain’s use of the adjective “gourmet” in describing their food, which is like calling a redneck who drinks wine from a bottle rather than a box “sophisticated.” (Don’t gimme no grief on the r-word; this valedictorian of Smoky Mountain High has had his share of wine boxes and farmer tans.)
The fried-rice side order has been switched to brown, which is a positive development taste-wise of not necessarily good for me specifically (of all the messed-up diets to be put on, I get the weird “don’t get kidney stones” one which rules out whole grains, dark meats and such – every aspect of this meal disobeyed, I must admit. But I’ve mostly cut out beer, so that balances, right?). The chow mein still needs their spicy mustard to remotely taste of anything other than grease and celery. The fortune cookie said I was doing well in my career, so there’s that; the large Mountain Dew made me briefly think the cookie was reading my mind, then I realized it was merely analyzing my facial expression to come to a trite and amateur analysis, and was not in fact prophetic at all.
I don’t know that I’d advocate pandas leave the zoo for this food, as depicted in the commercial, especially since I’ve always thought pandas were vegetarians, despite their namesake fast food chain being 100% not. But you could leave the house for it – they’re the best fast food shrimp I’ve had in a long time. And the beef won’t make your jaw hurt, which for TMJ-suffering me is a ringing endorsement.