Panda Imperial: noodle palace guardian

“This is the Chinese food we grew up with.”

Kung Pao chicken, named for a governor who saved a city by digging canals
  • Kung Pao chicken, named for a governor who saved a city by digging canals

Got to hand it to Hank. He keeps finding these places that give you more gobbles for your greenback.

It’s Friday. I ask where he’s going to eat with the money I give him. (Paying back a loan. The guy acts gruff, but he has a 14-karat heart of gold. I try not to abuse his generosity). “Yeah, right,” he says.

So I tell him I’m heading his way. South Bay. Maybe we could meet? “Well, I do have a kind of go-to place,” he says. “Corner of 3rd and Oxford. Chinese. Lunch specials. Under eight bucks. You get a pile. This on you?”

“Sure,” I say. “Least I can do.”

Alex, server and good source of food insights

Alex, server and good source of food insights

An hour later, I’m jumping off the 929 just across from this well-settled looking Chinese eatery, Panda Imperial. And no, it’s not Panda Express. Panda Imperial has a big tall red and yellow sign on poles, but the thing you notice is the white lettering in the window.

Panda Imperial Chinese

1208 Third Avenue, Chula Vista

“Lunch Special, $7.75. Dinner Special, $8.75.” So Hank’s not exaggerating. Inside, first thing you notice is a white-hatted chef in a black-and-yellow-striped shirt and white apron clanging away at a wok with flames licking over its side. He tosses veggies and rice in the air. What a rhythm! He plays with the flames and the food. A large can of Knorr chicken-flavored broth mix is open, ready to grab.

The room is decorated with ‘50s-style carpet, flowery pink and cream, with black tables and chairs, knotty pine walls, and an acoustic ceiling. In these days of industrial chic, it almost feels like a time warp.

“Over here!” says Henry. He’s already at a table. “I’m just going to have steamed veggies. Got to lose weight. But you should have the one that says ‘noodles,’ buddy. It has beef and chicken, and their meats are always as tender as heck. That’s if you want to fill yourself for the day.”

“Well, you know more about this stuff than I do.”

And actually, he does. I know he’s going to tell me the history of every last dish.

But we both clam up for a moment when the server comes with menus. What I like is that they have plenty of choices in the cheap columns, eight items in the $7.75 category, and twenty in the $8.75 column.

Cook works with high heat and searing flames

Cook works with high heat and searing flames

We both go straight to those columns. The $7.75 choices include chicken chop suey, chicken in black bean sauce, BBQ pork with rice, Szechuan beef, “Vegetable Delight,” more.

And with each of these $7.75 dishes, you get egg flower soup, an egg roll, and fried or steamed rice included. Can’t complain about that.

In the $8.75 list, you’ve got Mongolian beef (“Nothing to do with Mongolia,” says Henry. “A Taiwanese comedian invented it.”), lemon chicken, orange chicken, shrimp fried rice, curry chicken or curry beef (“Nothing Chinese about that. It’s from India, Caribbean.”), pork chop with spice salt (which sounds a deal), egg fu yung, and Kung Pao squid or chicken.

“Most of this is Cantonese,” says Hank, “but kung pao chicken is Szechuan. Far more interesting flavors. Szechuan is kind of near India and the overland trade routes to the West. They’ve had middle eastern crops like walnuts and sesame since the middle ages.”

Natch, he has to look it up online. “Huh. Chengdu, the capital of Szechuan province is a UNESCO ‘City of gastronomy.’ So there you go.”

Right, right. But we’ve got to decide some food for ourselves, right here.

“Go for the noodles,” says Hank. “You get the biggest bang for the buck. Trust me. I’ve had it a million times. Except today, I’m having the steamed veg. Got to clean out my system. I do this once a week. Feel lousy if I don’t.”

The noodles. For $7.75, it’s an old school deal.

The noodles. For $7.75, it’s an old school deal.

My problem is, I want to try his noodles, but I also want some Kung Pao chicken for the peanut thing going on, and the Szechuan heat.

“Well, we could split a palace guardian.”

“Say what?”

“‘Kung Pao.’ Means ‘palace guardian.’”

So we end up getting Hank’s steamed veggies, my Kung Pao, and the noodles. And of course Hank’s right. The noodles are a way big pile spiked with chicken and beef, and lots of veggies. Meats are tender and tasty. At $7.75, the noodle dish will more than fill anybody of any appetite.

“When I started, 19 years ago,” says Li, the manager, who’s come to check on us, “what cost $7.75 and $8.75 today were $3.75 and $4.75. And we do try to keep our prices down.”

Looking around at the other people here, you can tell they’re local, probably depending on these prices. This place has to be a staple of the neighborhood.

The most delicious? The noodles give the palace guardian a good run for his money. And when you think about it, these dishes are the fusion dishes of the old days. Called American-Chinese for the taste and heat compromises they struck back in the day to help bridge the east-west taste gap. I guess that’s what places like the late-lamented Pekin Restaurant in North Park were about. It was at heart a chop suey place, and chop suey was a meat-egg-veggie dish in a gloopy gravy, invented in the US for the US “Chinese” dining market.

So yes, this is the Chinese food we grew up with. Nothing has really changed. But that’s okay. It also retains the value and generosity of throwing in the egg flower soup, the egg roll, and the fried or steamed rice. Compare that with “cooler” places where you pay extra for fries with your burger.

Oh, and the steamed veggies? I leave them to Hank. He eats every last one.

  • The Place: Panda Imperial Chinese restaurant, 1208 Third Avenue, Chula Vista, 619-422-3388; 619-420-7386
  • Prices: Lunch specials at $7.75 include chicken chop suey; chicken in black bean sauce; sweet and sour pork or chicken; Szechuan beef; BBQ pork with rice; Vegetable Delight; at $8.75, house noodles; Mongolian beef; shrimp fried rice; pork chop with spicy salt; chicken or beef chow fun; kung pao squid or chicken; egg fu yung; dinner specials, about a dollar more
  • Hours: 11am-10pm daily

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The dish pictured at top looks to be Mongolian Beef. It is not Kung Pao Chicken.

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