When I was 12 years old, I schemed a brilliant scheme-drive-thru sushi. I couldn't imagine anything better than pulling up to the window and being asked, "You want wasabi with that?" Unfortunately, my high school economics class turned me off to business (you tried, Mr. Faulkner), and the dream died along with alternate plans to become the first fighter pilot/marine biologist/writer.
At least one of those goals stuck, and it lead me to reviewing restaurants, many of which have been purveyors of my favorite food. But until I laid eyes on Panda Garden, I never spied a place so close to my original vision. The structure has stucco arches and tall windows reminiscent of a Mexican cantina with rubberized benches and a drive-thru box that smack of an abandoned Wendy's. The interior is a charming casserole of Oriental kitsch, with rainbow lights above the sushi bar, goldfish on the counter and recurring iconography of a big panda cuddling a little panda. Aww.
The boy and I were seated next to a window and given menus and jasmine tea. On the Chinese side, there is Chow Mai Fun, the infamous Pu Pu Platter and General Tso's Chicken, which I have tried in almost every Chinese restaurant I have ever patronized. It's a great barometer, so we ordered a plate along with a decadent assortment of sushi and sashimi.
Then our waiter stopped by with miso soup-for the boy-who happily slurped bits of tofu and nori from a square spoon while I sat awkwardly filing my nails with a chopstick. I began to think I was being taught a primitive, cultural lesson, but when a boiling bowl of fresh soup arrived, it all made sense. The cloudy broth was rich with sliced green onion, tofu and seaweed, but the flavor was a little too fishy and not quite salty enough for my taste. The General's Chicken, on the other hand, was the best I've had in Boise. The chicken was actually discernable from the breading, which was crunchy-not in that mealy, oily, been rolling under a buffet heat lamp way-but really crunchy, like it had actually been made to order. The sauce was nothing like the unnatural, pink goo (alien placenta) you find in Chinese dives, it was tangy, subtly sweet and just thick enough to coat the chicken, broccoli, carrots, snow peas and fluffy white rice.
We groaned as the next platter came, but the fish looked so good we managed to coax our bloated fingers into action. Thick slices of raw yellowtail, ahi, sweet omelet and salmon were draped gorgeously over shaved dikon radish next to shrimp, octopus and red snapper nigiri and three rolls: California, salmon and avocado and vegetarian futomaki. The rice was firm and fragrant, the fish exceedingly fresh and the presentation artful. The only thing that didn't knock my socks off was the octopus, but I have found it to be inconsistent even at the finest Japanese restaurants in San Francisco, Seattle and Hawaii.
Despite the miso scare, Panda Garden provided some of the best service I've had in a long time. Three different people attended to our needs, and they were genuinely grateful for our business. I am used to the high fashion, low attention span, brat-pack servers common to downtown Boise, so I was even happier about the excellent service than the excellent food. Panda Garden has a little of everything, and you don't even have to get out of your car.
-Erin Ryan wants to open a drive-thru dog-wash.