We went to the L.A. restaurant that inspired Panda Express. Here’s how it stacks up to the beloved Chinese takeout chain.

Panda Inn has locations in Glendale, La Palma and Ontario, plus a temporarily closed Pasadena flagship.

Patricia Kelly Yeo
Food & Drink Editor, Time Out Los Angeles
Panda Inn
Photograph: Patricia Kelly Yeo for Time Out

Los Angeles County might be full of award-winning independent restaurants, but it’s also the birthplace of many of the country’s most beloved and well-known chains. The Cheesecake Factory began in Beverly Hills, the first Sizzler opened its doors in Culver City and Panda Express debuted at the Glendale Galleria, where it remains in the food court as of today. (The other two chains’ original locations are also kicking around, for what it’s worth.) What many L.A. diners don’t know, however, is that Andrew and Peggy Cherng, the billionaire owners of Panda Express, got their start in the restaurant business with a similarly named sit-down Chinese eatery in Pasadena.

The restaurant’s name? Panda Inn, of course. As of writing, the flagship outpost is closed for extensive renovations, but three other Panda Inn locations in Southern California (Glendale, Ontario, La Palma) still exist and are open for business today. Along with Andrew’s late father, Ming-Tsai, the Cherngs opened the original Panda Inn in 1972. Despite growing up in L.A. and eating at Panda Express from time to time, I didn’t even know that Panda Inn existed until a few months ago. Once I stumbled upon that fact, I knew I had to check it out (and pay homage to) arguably the most famous Asian-owned restaurant brand in America.

Both restaurants’ names were inspired by Richard Nixon’s diplomatic visit to China that same year, according to NBC Asian America. The historic trip led to a gradual thawing in long-icy international relations between the U.S. and the People’s Republic of China. Afterwards, then-chairman Mao Zedong sent two pandas to the United States as a symbol of friendship between the two countries—a continuation of China’s long-standing tradition of panda diplomacy—and inspired the Cherngs to name their brand-new restaurant after the country’s iconic black-and-white bear.

In 1982, the Cherngs expanded to a second location in Glendale. When a real estate developer behind the Glendale Galleria, a six-year-old mall at the time, offered the family an opportunity to open a quick-service restaurant in the food court just down the street, they agreed. A year later, the first Panda Express opened, kicking off what would become a three billion dollar fast food empire with over 2,200 locations countrywide.

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All the while, the Cherngs have continued operating Panda Inn, which serves an expanded, slightly fancier menu of Americanized Chinese classics like honey walnut shrimp, orange chicken and Mongolian beef. Unlike the fast-food chain many Americans know and love, dishes are cooked to order. So I wanted to find out how Panda Inn stacks up to the rest of L.A.’s Americanized Chinese dining scene—and, of course, how the food compares to Panda Express.

Since the Pasadena flagship is down for the count, I rounded up a group of five other friends to visit the Glendale location on a recent Sunday night. Aside from a 16-month closure for redevelopment that began sometime in 2015, Panda Inn Glendale has remained in continuous operation for the last 42 years. Today, it sits within the mixed-use apartment building that occupies its original address. 

Outside the restaurant, you’ll find a sign bearing a logo similar to Panda Express, with an adorable cartoon panda on a bright red background—though this one is sitting upright and holding a stick of bamboo. Once inside, the slatted wood walls and muted neutral color palette give the place a slightly luxurious though boring feel. Most of my friends were running late, so I took a seat in the waiting area, where a Buddha statue, Chinese woodblock prints and several potted plants greet diners-to-be.

Panda Inn bar area
Photograph: Patricia Kelly Yeo for Time Out

Even though I ended up arriving past the 15-minute grace period for our reservation, my party was seated promptly within the crowded dining room. Inside, you’ll find round, family-style tables covered in white tablecloths most Americans associate with Chinese restaurants. The cushioned dining chairs skew upscale, with the type of molded plywood back associated with the Cherner chair, an icon of mid-century modern interior design. While the gleaming back-lit full bar with a few low-slung tables was empty, the restaurant was otherwise almost full; Panda Inn clearly has its regulars. 

“Where are the lazy Susans?” bemoaned one of my friends. She echoed my initial sentiment. Part of me hoped that Panda Inn would have at least some of the hallmarks of the family-style restaurants I ate at throughout my childhood. None of the tables in the main dining room feature the rotating trays associated with Chinese family-style dining, but the restaurant does offer them within its semi-private dining rooms, as we found out later on when a large party emerged from behind a curtain. As my friends arrived, one by one, blaming traffic woes, I skimmed through the menu, assembling the order to end all orders. 

Compared to the dozen or so entrée options offered at most Panda Express locations, the menu at Panda Inn is staggeringly large. The standard menu offers 50 different items, not to mention an American-style sushi menu commemorating the restaurant’s 40th anniversary. (Panda Restaurant Group, the umbrella under which both brands fall, also operates or has a hand in operating two different Japanese restaurant concepts: Hibachi-San and Yakiya.)

Panda Inn appetizers
Photograph: Patricia Kelly Yeo for Time Out

In my usual style, I over-ordered, crisscrossing all over the map in terms of Chinese takeout classics: potstickers and dumplings, minced chicken lettuce cups, crab wontons, hot-and-sour and chicken corn egg drop soups. Mongolian beef and orange chicken, a random order of scallops in garlic sauce, kung pao chicken, stir-fried string beans and a stir-fry mix known as “three ingredient taste.” On a whim, I also threw in a fusion-style sushi item known as the Terminator Roll, an inside-out maki preparation topped with salmon, jalapeno slices and plenty of ponzu.

In my opinion, no meal at a Chinese restaurant is complete without noodles, so I also ordered chow fun beef, garlic noodles and the closest thing Panda Inn offers to Hong Kong-style mixed seafood crispy noodles, one of my favorite Cantonese dishes of all time. 

For drinks, I went with the Fortune Cookie Milk Tea, which offered just wisps of sweetness and flavor—and not in a good way. Setting it aside as our server approached, I placed our dinner order. His eyes nearly popped out of his head at the amount of food we were ordering, but our server took my order without further comment. “We’ll bring home leftovers,” I said, giving him a weak smile. 

Panda Inn mains
Photograph: Patricia Kelly Yeo for Time Out

The food, in short, was acceptable but generally uninspiring. I have extremely high standards when it comes to Chinese food, spurred from a lifetime of dining across the San Gabriel Valley, growing up in a Chinese Filipino family and, at one point, traveling to Taipei. In my life, I’ve had my share of hot-and-sour soup and enjoyed the silky ribbons of egg drop soup, but Panda Inn’s versions of both Americanized Chinese dishes were so bland I felt no impetus to finish either of my bowls.

Other Panda Inn dishes, like the minced chicken and upside-down crispy noodles, allude to the Cantonese banquet hall menu canon, but they fail to live up to even the tasty but still quotidian versions served at Los Angeles mainstays like Phoenix Inn in Chinatown and Monterey Park’s NBC Seafood. The minced chicken was serviceable, but woefully underseasoned, and the upside-down crispy noodles, made with chicken, lacked the kind of discernible oomph that made me fall in love with pan-fried mixed noodles as a child. 

Perhaps my standards have gotten impossibly high, but I can still appreciate most things steamed and deep-fried. Of the appetizers we ordered, the best were the potstickers, the crab wontons and the mini pork dumplings. The crab wontons were full of creamy cheese and deep-fried, the potstickers were also deep-fried and the mini dumplings had been adequately steamed and topped with sauce. 

Panda Inn scallops in garlic sauce
Photograph: Patricia Kelly Yeo for Time OutSkip the scallops in garlic sauce (foreground) and three ingredient taste (background).

Among the various mains, the best dishes were the ones also served at Panda Express: The orange chicken, the Mongolian beef, the kung pao (listed as “kon pao”) chicken. The string beans passed muster but lacked the seasoning and crunch of the same dish served at Din Tai Fung and even solid-but-not-remarkable citywide delivery favorite Dan Modern Chinese. The garlic noodles were actively bad, as were the scallops in garlic sauce, which included scallops so shrunken and sad-looking I wondered if they were dried. Unsurprisingly, the Terminator Roll made for a delicious, slightly spicy ponzu-soaked bite of rice and fish. 

Perhaps one of the biggest disappointments of the night was the three ingredient taste—a medley of shrimp, beef, chicken, broccoli, mushrooms and bamboo shoots in a brown mushroom soy sauce. I’ve written about the wonders of velveting before in Bon Appétit, and generally love cornstarch, but Panda Inn’s execution of the technique was a gloppy, underseasoned mess. Drive just a little bit farther east and you’ll find far superior takes on this in one of the most diverse Chinese restaurant scenes in the country—but, unfathomably, for plenty of regulars, this is seemingly good enough.

We finished our meal with white chocolate-dipped fortune cookies and packed our leftovers into Panda Inn’s signature red takeout boxes. I wasn’t exactly disappointed by my meal, but I wasn’t itching to drive back to Glendale for the same experience, especially with so many great kebabs floating around and a literal Din Tai Fung mere blocks away, among other amazing eats.

Panda Inn fortune cookie
Photograph: Patricia Kelly Yeo for Time Out

If you stick to the familiar-looking dishes that overlap with Panda Express, you’ll find that Panda Inn delivers the sort of straightforward, watered-down Chinese cuisine that has made its fast food sibling a household name across the country. The flavors of the same dishes are slightly more refined at Panda Inn. But from a pure craveability perspective, I still prefer the punchier flavors of Panda Express. Between Panda Inn and Panda Express, I’d choose Panda Express, every time—but maybe only when I’m at an airport or driving around on a road trip, searching for somewhere decent that serves plain white rice. 

I wouldn’t come back to Panda Inn for my orange chicken fix otherwise. L.A. is full of great Americanized Chinese joints, but the O.G. Panda doesn’t measure up to them—or my critic’s standards (the rest of my party was satisfied and entertained by the meal, but not particularly impressed). I’m reminded of the orange chicken full of dried chilies and deep-fried dumplings at Mar Vista’s Little Fatty and the slippery shrimp at Yang Chow in Chinatown. The menu at West Hollywood’s Formosa Cafe, also designed by Little Fatty’s David Kuo, is apparently excellent as well, not to mention longtime Westside neighborhood joints like Hop Li and Hu’s Szechwan Restaurant. (There’s also Genghis Cohen on Fairfax, for those craving New York-style Americanized Chinese food.) 

Panda Inn orange chicken
Photograph: Patricia Kelly Yeo for Time Out

Famously, Panda Express’s orange chicken only became a massive hit once now-retired executive chef Andy Kao took out the bones. This same general spinelessness generally applies to the cooking going on at Panda Inn. Nothing contains bones, every dish is easy for a layperson to eat and understand and none of the dishes will challenge you—and apparently, that’s what most people want. 

At the same time, I can’t deny how fun it is to be able to visit the predecessor to one of the country’s most popular chains, all without having to leave greater Los Angeles. You are sitting in living history, so to speak. From the logo outside to the fancy foil-covered fortune cookies, the similarities are endearing, and based off the dining room, it’s clear that plenty of people prefer the familiarity of Panda Inn over the thrills of, say, bone-in Hunan-style frog legs or Taiwanese stir-fried pork kidneys in ginger. I’m just not one of them.

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