A taste test at Panda Ex­press

Chefs at the Panda Ex­press test kitchen are tak­ing big­ger chances in their quest for the next or­ange chicken

Los Angeles Times - - FRONT PAGE - By David Pier­son

In­no­va­tion kitchen aims to please a fast­food palate.

In­side one of Panda Ex­press’ test kitchens, the chef that gave the world or­ange chicken was pre­par­ing some­thing de­cid­edly dif­fer­ent: a clas­sic re­gional Chi­nese dish called “lion’s head meat­balls.”

The recipe plays the rich and del­i­cate tex­ture of ground pork belly against a clear broth and blanched Napa cab­bage, curled against the meat­balls to look like a lion’s mane.

Com­pany ex­ec­u­tives stabbed at the orbs pre­pared by Chef Andy Kao with plas­tic uten­sils, nod­ding in ap­proval with each sat­is­fy­ing bite. The dish was ethe­real, com­fort­ing and rem­i­nis­cent of the ver­sion the chain’s founder, An­drew Ch­erng, ate as a boy grow­ing up in China.

Panda Ex­press cus­tomers will never get to try it. That’s be­cause Kao and his team were there to rein­vent the dish, fry­ing and glaz­ing the meat­balls to make it look and taste more like some­thing that be­longs in one of the Rose­mead com­pany’s 1,800 restau­rants.

This is how new menu items are of­ten de­vel­oped at the world’s big­gest Chi­nese din­ing chain: start with a time-hon­ored recipe from the old world and turn it on its head un­til it achieves palata­bil­ity at U.S. malls, air­ports and high­way ex­its where Panda Ex­press is en­trenched.

The hope is to score another hit like or­ange chicken, which the com­pany sold 67 mil­lion pounds of last year, ac­count­ing for one-third of Panda’s sales vol­ume.

“Chains are al­ways go­ing to have their ‘great­est hits,’ so to speak, but menu in­no­va­tion is in­te­gral to the suc­cess of chains such as Panda Ex­press,” said An­drew Alvarez, an an­a­lyst for IbisWorld, a mar­ket re­search firm. “Con­sumer pref­er­ences tend to shift [and] the con­sis­tent and per­pet­ual evo­lu­tion of Panda’s menu has kept it ahead of the curve in this re­gard.”

But even as Kao and his fel­low test kitchen chefs try to Amer­i­can­ize re­gional Chi­nese clas­sics, they’re also start­ing to take big­ger chances — em­bold­ened by the

grow­ing fa­mil­iar­ity of Asian foods such as Ja­panese ra­men, Korean bar­be­cue and Sriracha hot sauce.

They’re also tak­ing a cue from more au­then­tic eth­nic chains like Chipo­tle Mex­i­can Grill Inc. The $4.1-bil­lion fast-ca­sual gi­ant fa­mous for its hefty bur­ri­tos has in­tro­duced a new way of eat­ing Mex­i­can food that’s some­where be­tween a Taco Bell and a road­side ta­que­ria. It also op­er­ates ShopHouse, a chain of South­east Asian-inspired restau­rants whose menu fea­tures in­gre­di­ents that are ob­scure to many Amer­i­cans, such as tamarind and green pa­paya.

“When you try to make food all things for all peo­ple, you tend to make medi­ocre food,” said Chris Arnold, Chipo­tle’s com­mu­ni­ca­tion di­rec­tor. Chipo­tle, he said, aims for a loyal au­di­ence rather than a wider one.

Panda Ex­press chefs are now ex­per­i­ment­ing with bolder in­gre­di­ents such as fer­mented black beans, XO sauce and fish sauce in the belief that cus­tomers are ready to ex­pand their culi­nary bound­aries.

“Our guests are evolv­ing in their tastes and what they want,” said An­drea Ch­erng, 37, the com­pany’s chief mar­ket­ing of­fi­cer and daugh­ter of Co-Chief Ex­ec­u­tives An­drew and Peggy Ch­erng. “Es­pe­cially now in terms of the food in­dus­try’s trans­for­ma­tion. We have to el­e­vate our game.”

Few com­pa­nies have as much in­flu­ence shap­ing a sin­gle cui­sine as Panda Res­tau­rant Group, founded in 1983. The busi­ness racked up $2.2 bil­lion in rev­enue last year, nearly dou­bling in just four years at a time when sales vol­umes at Asian and In­dian restau­rants have been stag­nant, ac­cord­ing to re­search firm NDP Group.

The chain’s pop­u­lar­ity en­dures de­spite Amer­i­can Chi­nese food’s pen­chant for be­ing dis­missed as cheap and in­au­then­tic.

Panda Ex­press “is one of the great suc­cess sto­ries,” said Yong Chen, a pro­fes­sor of history at UC Irvine and au­thor of “Chop Suey, USA: The Story of Chi­nese Food in Amer­ica.” “It is par­tic­u­larly im­por­tant be­cause it sig­nals the fur­ther pen­e­tra­tion of Amer­i­can­ized Chi­nese food into mass con­sump­tion.”

When a Panda Ex­press dish is a hit like its mush­room chicken, it will start ap­pear­ing on the menus of mom-and-pop Chi­nese eater­ies. Even or­ange chicken has been f lat­tered by im­i­ta­tion in the form of Trader Joe’s frozen Man­darin Or­ange Chicken.

The com­pany typ­i­cally in­tro­duces two new dishes a year to a menu de­signed to fea­ture both health­ful and caloric choices. There’s lit­tle mar­gin for er­ror. A new menu item can take be­tween 18 months and five years to de­velop. Recipes will be tweaked dozens of times, and thou­sands of peo­ple will be in­ter­viewed in fo­cus groups and taste pan­els.

The March re­lease of Panda Ex­press’ Chi­nese spare ribs re­quired a $20mil­lion com­mit­ment on in­gre­di­ents alone. There have been f lops in the past, no­tably the bat­tered and fried Golden Trea­sure shrimp.

“We in­vest a lot of time and re­sources,” An­drea Ch­erng said. “The spare ribs were in de­vel­op­ment for five years, and I’d wa­ger a guess the meat­balls will be more years than that.”

Although more tra­di­tional Chi­nese food has made in­roads in the U.S., Panda Ex­press can’t sim­ply start serv­ing lion’s head meat­balls, braised chicken feet or mapo tofu, a Sichuan clas­sic noted for its mouth­numb­ing pep­per­corns.

“What we have in China won’t sell here,” said An­drew Ch­erng, who picked the meat­balls for de­vel­op­ment be­cause the dish makes him nos­tal­gic for his boy­hood in Yangzhou, a his­toric city a few hours drive north of Shang­hai. “We have to ed­u­cate the public so they get the hang of the dish.”

One of the early tests took place in March. The sub­jects? About two dozen stu­dents at Jan­son Ele­men­tary School in Rose­mead. Panda Ex­press ex­ec­u­tives wanted to see if the dish ap­pealed to chil­dren the same way it did in China.

Each stu­dent was asked to rate three ver­sions of the meat­ball, each made with chicken, which Panda con­sid­ers a more pop­u­lar choice than pork. One meat­ball was put in a broth, much like the orig­i­nal recipe. Another was stir-fried in a sweet, vine­gary sauce with basil, red bell pep­pers and onions. And the last was fried crispy and glazed with a Korean-style bar­be­cue sauce.

“I liked the crunchy one be­cause it re­minded me of chips,” Kevin Chan, 8, told a Panda in­ter­viewer out­side a class­room where the tast­ing was held.

A few hours later, the re­sults were in. The ma­jor­ity of the stu­dents fa­vored the sweet, vine­gary stir-fry ver­sion fol­lowed by the fried meat­ball. The tra­di­tional one came in last.

The chil­dren were then asked to shout out things that would lure them into a Panda Ex­press more of­ten. “Ice-cream!” “Free Wi-Fi!” “A live panda!” Mean­while, other fo­cus groups were show­ing lack­lus­ter en­thu­si­asm for the dish. “Peo­ple were say­ing it was a bit for­eign to them,” An­drea Ch­erng said. “They as­so­ciate meat­balls with cer­tain cuisines.”

The test kitchen chefs agreed to take a break — two months at least to clear their minds and work on the 100 other dishes in dif­fer­ent stages of de­vel­op­ment.

Find­ing the win­ning recipe for the meat­ball falls mostly on Jimmy Wang, Panda’s di­rec­tor of culi­nary in­no­va­tion. Kao, the or­ange chicken in­ven­tor, is set to re­tire soon.

The Tai­wan-born Wang has in­tro­duced un­usual bur­rito-like wraps to cra­dle things like chow mein and honey wal­nut shrimp at the com­pany’s In­no­va­tion Kitchen in Pasadena, where the public can or­der some of the test menu items.

“There’s a way to make this dish. I just haven’t found it yet,” Wang, 36, said of the meat­balls.

Among the ideas be­ing bat­ted around: mak­ing the dish a soup item or a noo­dle bowl.

“I don’t quit. I’m not that guy,” Wang said. “This might be my or­ange chicken.”

Pho­tog raphs by Don Bartletti Los An­ge­les Times

PANDA EX­PRESS Ex­ec­u­tive Chef Andy Kao, left, the in­ven­tor of or­ange chicken, tries meat­ball recipes with prod­uct man­ager Adrian Lok and Jimmy Wang, di­rec­tor of culi­nary in­no­va­tion, at the com­pany’s In­no­va­tion Kitchen in Pasadena.

KAO AND LOK taste one of sev­eral ver­sions of “lion’s head meat­balls.” As the chefs try to Amer­i­can­ize re­gional Chi­nese clas­sics, they’re also start­ing to take big­ger chances.

Don Bartletti Los An­ge­les Times

JIMMY WANG looks for the win­ning meat­ball recipe. “There’s a way to make this dish. I just haven’t found it yet,” he says.

Christina House For The Times

A MEAT­BALL TAST­ING for about two dozen stu­dents at Jan­son Ele­men­tary School in Rose­mead is con­ducted by Panda Ex­press ex­ec­u­tives in March.

Don Bartletti Los An­ge­les Times

AN­DREA CH­ERNG, Panda Ex­press’ chief mar­ket­ing of­fi­cer, watches the chefs try new recipes.

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