If you like to live dangerously, Panda Gourmet is for you. If you go around back and check yourself into the New York Avenue Days Inn, you…might be murdered. No. You will definitely be murdered. But here, on this side of the building, there’s more flavor and less dead prostitutes. If you’ve ever driven down Route 50 and thought, “Lol, nice try Panda Gourmet. I see you over there pretending to be Panda Express and giving everyone salmonella,” then you are wrong. Panda Gourmet is one of the best things that has ever happened to Chinese food inside the beltway. It’s the only thing that has ever happened to Chinese food inside the beltway.
This friendly/terrifying terra cotta host greeted me/made me jump in horror as I entered the foyer. He’s here to guard the restaurant against the murderous pimps who populate the Days Inn.
It was just me and my husband and I’m trying to be a little more mindful about how much food I put into my body, especially in light of holiday excess, so naturally we ordered four entire dishes just for us. Panda Gourmet has a lot of stuff and it’s impossible to narrow it down. Fortunately, we knew that we could just take home anything we didn’t want.*
We started with the cold-stir ear mushrooms. The marinade and cilantro on this took it from good to great. I am not the biggest fan of either mushrooms or raw onions, but this was shockingly amazing. Side note: the name “ear mushroom” is no joke. It was a little disconcerting, actually, considering our uncomfortable proximity to what I’m convinced is a real, actual murder motel.
The “Epilogue” of their menu recommended Shanxi cold noodles, which we’d never had before, so we rolled with it. I’m not sure why a menu needs an epilogue, but okay.
Mmmmm. I love five spice. The cinnamon and chili was strong, but the cold temperature took the edge off. Not the best thing I’ve ever eaten in my life, but truly different and, besides, it was in the epilogue.
Next came a perennial favorite: the griddle-cooked chicken. The meat was incredibly moist and the veggies were plentiful. On its own, the dish is heavier on the Sichuan numbing pepper than hot pepper flavor, but PG puts a huge pot of chili oil at each table. Om nom. The griddle cooked series also adds a nice flair to your table that’s sure to make the tables around you jealous.
…And speaking of making people jealous, on this visit, my husband ordered a never-before-seen dish: the braised pork with preserved vegetables. We had to wait so long for it that I flagged down one of their many avoidant staff members to ask what happened to our order. It turns out they hadn’t forgotten, they were just taking some extra time to make it very very special for us.
Here it is in all its glory: sticky-sweet, melty-fatty BBQ pork belly smothered in cilantro. Like a giant bowl of char siu goodness. I don’t know where all the “preserved vegetables” are and frankly, I don’t care. I had to push this away from me to prevent myself from eating more of it. Then I pulled it back and took another bite. The family at the table next to us stared longingly before asking us for the deets. This was can’t-miss level pork belly. I immediately took a picture and texted it to my friend Amanda with the caption “ZOMGZQOIELD!!!” This will make our regular rotation for sure.
Price: $30 per person for more food than you could possibly eat.
Bottom line: Words don’t describe Panda Gourmet. It’s like stepping off the set of The Wire and into some magical flavor wonderland.
*LOL just kidding, we ate all of this because we are incredibly disgusting.