Since 2004, Panda Garden has brought Asian cuisine to the restaurant-starved stretch of Overland Road from Vista Ave. to Orchard St. On any given weeknight, there is at least one couple eating in the small dining area, and on weekends, most of the tables are full and the drive-thru window line is bustling.
With a couple hundred items on the menu, including Chinese dishes and a full array of Japanese sushi options, it's a destination for a cheap Asian-food fix.
It is not, however, a destination if the goal is something exotic. The small space features tables with take-out menus flattened between the glass and the underlying tablecloth and an inky green fish tank housing a few slow-moving fish. Everything on the menu--except maybe the Pine Nut Duck--is a mainstay of most Americanized Chinese and Japanese restaurants.
But don't let familiarity breed contempt. Panda Garden serves up inexpensive, simple food delivered with a smile, especially if owner/head chef Peter Qiu is in the house (and he usually is).
Qiu, who was born in China, turned to his own history of going out to eat with friends to decide what kind of food to serve in his restaurant.
"One friend would want to go out for Chinese food and one would want sushi," Qiu said. "I decided to serve both."
General Tso's chicken ($9.25) is a popular dish and can be ordered hot enough to blow out your nose hairs. I ordered it sans heat, and while that allowed for some of the textures of the tender chicken and crispy breading and flavors of the mushrooms, carrots and water chestnuts to come through, the thick Hunan sauce that covered the dish was so sweet, it was like eating chicken dessert.
On the sushi side, the Million Dollar Roll ($12.25) has long been a mystery to me. Whereas the other rolls have a short description of what's inside, the Million Dollar Roll's description is: "Its taste is worth a million dollar [sic] --John Crowder." Qiu explained that Crowder was a customer who asked "to try something different." He loved the roll, and Qiu loved what he had to say about it.
The roll is not worth $1 million, but it is worth the $12 price tag, with tuna and yellowtail draped over a roll filled with tuna, green onions, orange roe and crunchy tempura, finished with dollops of red roe and drizzles of eel sauce and spicy mayo.
For a simple meal in a simple space, served with a smile, set your GPS for Overland Road.