Panda Chinese Gourmet, while decent enough, is less than gourmet

January 01, 1993|By Elizabeth Large | Elizabeth Large,Restaurant Critic

Tucked away in back of the Lake Falls Village shopping center is a small restaurant called the Panda Chinese Gourmet. It's the neighborhood Chinese restaurant, the place where you get your carryout lo mein on the way home from work. Or -- when convenience is more important than great food - you stop here for a bite to eat.

It performs this useful function very well. This is a pretty dining room and, maybe more importantly, a soothing one. The colors are shades of blond and beige, the dominant motif is bamboo, and, of course, there are pandas. The staff couldn't be nicer. Dinner arrived at our table surprisingly quickly -- the soup almost immediately after we ordered, the appetizers a few minutes later -- even though there were plenty of other customers there that evening.

What the Panda Chinese Gourmet isn't is a gourmet Chinese restaurant. The food just isn't as good as it could be. And that's a shame, considering the comfortable, pretty setting and the really lovely staff.

I certainly can't condemn our meal across the board. Hot and sour soup had bite and sizzle, and wasn't thickened to sludge. Pan-fried dumplings were fat and greasy but full of flavor. But an egg roll was too greasy, and the skin was doughy as well.

If the Panda Chinese Gourmet specializes in any one kind of cooking, it would be Cantonese. Although there is the obligatory Sichuan section on the menu, the chef's specialties aren't, for the most part, spicy dishes.

Lobster Mandarin-style was supposed to have a hot sauce but didn't. This was a handsome dish, the bright red lobster meat arranged with dark green chopped scallions. Alas, it didn't taste as good as it looked. At first I thought the lobster wasn't fresh. Then I realized it was fine, if a bit overcooked; it was the sauce that was fishy tasting -- and over-salted as well. Too bad: This could be a spectacular dish with its classic ingredients and the bite of fresh ginger in the sauce.

Another specialty, sha cha wor bor, combined fat shrimp (the best part -- I'd order a shrimp dish next time), beef and chicken with various vegetables in a sort of barbecue sauce. It's turned out onto a sizzling platter at the table so it stays hot -- but, of course, the vegetables continue to cook. Not bad, but not wildly interesting.

And that pretty much sums up our meal, down to the ice cream or fortune cookies for dessert. The people who run the Panda Chinese Gourmet, though, are so nice I feel guilty being even that negative about the food.

The restaurant, by the way, doesn't have a liquor license; you're welcome to bring your own bottle.

Panda Chinese Gourmet

Where: 6080 Falls Road at Lake Avenue.

Hours: Monday through Thursday, 11:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11:30 a.m. to midnight; Sunday, 1 p.m. to 10:30 p.m.

Credit cards accepted: AE, V, MC.

Features: Chinese food.

Non-smoking section? No.

Call: (410) 377-4228.

Price range: First courses, $1.30-$5.75, entrees, $4.25-$15.50.

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