It all comes down to two things with a Chinese food restaurant for me: How is their Crab Rangoon, and can they make a great batch of chicken fried rice? Luckily for my St. Louis county readers, there’s a place where you can acquire both things every single time.
Allow me to introduce you to Panda Chinese Restaurant.
While beef and broccoli is usually a must-order, I go for a chicken-centered entrée nearly as well when the family orders takeout. Szechuan, sweet n’ sour, orange, General Tso, and so on. However, chicken fried rice is the perfect getaway driver for a plate If you can nail the chicken-it shouldn’t taste like it was made 12 hours ago-then we are in business.
Panda Chinese Restaurant-the location in Kirkwood, across the street from The Magic House-gets every single dish at their establishment just right. A hole-in-the-wall joint in Woodbine Center offers a variety of cuisine that is good no matter where you eat it. When dining in, the plates are steaming hot and piled high. But at home, the flavor is retained and the leftovers are also delicious. How many places can assure you of that on multiple occasions? It’s a rarity, but PCR (abbreviated here and onward so the brain doesn’t get deep fried from the name alone) sits in that category.
It’s easy to give a local establishment in this foodie genre a pass if they can nail one or two menu items with a moderate level of consistency. Hon’s Wok offers some great Crab Rangoon, and Bo Fung has great egg rolls and egg drop soup. But PCR aces those categories and more.
A family-owned business that has taken a hit from COVID-19 like any other mom and pop shop in any town across America, PCR has relied heavily on takeout. But the taste and overall quality hasn’t dropped after a year of hardship. Fact: When you can score a 4.4 out of 5 on Google out of 130 reviews, you’re doing something very right. According to a Google user named George, the food was “fast, friendly, and delicious.” Another customer noted, “great food, good price, very nice people.”
After eating inside the restaurant-which in normal times contains about ten tables and has a lunch buffet-numerous times, I can concur with both of these statements. The same lovely and patient woman, sweet and patient, has taken our order every time at the front desk or via phone. The same cooks, loud yet passionate, work the wok and keep the food rolling out. Pre-COVID-19 or post, the place always had 3-4 people waiting for pickup and at least 3-4 people dining in-along with another four in the area thinking about it. My family would frequently see the kids of the owners doing homework and eating some food off to the left. While that can turn some off, I always found it comforting and safe. It was like eating in someone else’s living room, not some stranger’s business environment.
Now, about that Crab Rangoon. My wife usually isolates these delicious appetizers into the “too sweet” or “too salty” category within seconds after a bite, and this one tops the charts on overall taste and consistency. While you don’t want the crust to crack like a wonton, you don’t want the dough to come off undercooked either. Here, the crab mix has just enough cream cheese and a nice garlic/sweet finish to the taste. We always split a large order and have leftovers for an hour later.
You can’t go wrong with their combo deals, which all include a delicious pork egg roll (they are big) and fried rice. Speaking of the fan favorite, their chicken fried rice is excellent. The pieces of chicken aren’t as big as your thumb, and a little soy sauce goes a long way in the flavor of every bite, all the way down to the bottom of the pint. Yes, I shamelessly clean this thing out like my beagle would if given the opportunity.
Their Orange Chicken combo is my go-to meal. When it comes to this particular dish, there are restaurants that just flood the overcooked chicken with sauce and hope the customer never notices. Panda Chinese Restaurant bypasses that roadblock, getting both elements of the dish right. I toss it on top of a bed of white rice, crack a Crab Rangoon over it, and always finish the plate. The only bad part about eating Chinese food is that you are ready for more in about 2-3 hours, so grab an extra order of Sesame Chicken to nibble on later.
The only negative I can think of with this place is the name, because of the exact similarity to a restaurant off Baptist Church Road. And when you say the first name, people assume you’re talking about the fast food restaurant, Panda Express. Going there over PCR in Kirkwood would be like passing up a St. Louis Blues playoff hockey game for a rec league game where each team is drunk before puck drop: it will be fun in the beginning, but the end is surely bitter.
But the good thing about a place like this is that you have to look for it. Seek it out. It takes a little more detective work than simply noticing the large marquee sign of a commercial chain establishment. Panda Chinese Restaurant fulfills its quota of being a hole-in-the-wall location, but the taste will bring you back. I don’t care how a place looks from the outside. This isn’t a beauty contest.
Bottom Line: The people at Panda Chinese Restaurant in Kirkwood are sweet and always polite, and their food is amazing every time. So good that I may have just figured out where I am going for lunch today.
Take care and please tip well,