I've always had good luck with Chinese restaurants that share the moniker "panda." Enamored of one that sadly bit the dust a few years back, I visited New Panda II in hopes of recapturing the best sesame chicken in town.
As it turned out, I never actually tried that chicken. Instead, in a homey but elegant contemporary Chinese eatery nestled into a midtown strip mall, I got sidetracked by tasty Thai dishes and some new inventions that defy categorization.
Falling into that latter category was Tequila Lime Beef ($9.25), spicy grilled beef strips marinated in a chili lime sauce, served with crisp veggies. As with all the beef dishes I tried at New Panda II, the meat was tender and the serving ample.
Two Thai dishes were standouts as well: Panang Curry ($7.50 to $8.95, depending on your choice of chicken, beef, tofu or shrimp) and Drunken Noodles ($6.75 to $7.50). The Panang was a coconut milk-based, sweet yellow curry, generally milder than the green curry but still delivering a sinus-clearing kick. Firm cubes of fried tofu and hearty slices of yellow onion floated in the thick sauce, making a perfect dish for a hot summer night. Drunken Noodles, broad rice noodles sauted with sweet basil and bell peppers in a spicy soy-sugar gravy, was surprisingly light and wonderfully fragrant.
New Panda II has a lunch buffet that I haven't tried, and a lunch special menu that features more than 50 entrees, including Thai choices like Satay Pork and Minty Eggplant, for a reasonable and all-inclusive (rice, soup, appetizer, entre) price of $5.25. Frequently a solo diner, I especially appreciated that you can order combination plates at any time of day.
One night, I splurged and ordered the most expensive plate ($8.25), the beef-shrimp-chicken combination with garlic sauce. Fried wonton strips served with a sweet pineapple dipping sauce, New Panda's version of chips and salsa, preceded the meal. A lovely appetizer plate came next a cream cheese-filled fried wonton accompanied by a butterflied shrimp, breaded and fried. The hot and sour soup was heavy on vegetables and adequately spicy.
The most pleasant surprise of many was the beautiful plating of the garlic sauce combo on a square, black enamel dish. Tender morsels of shrimp, chicken and beef mingled with baby corn, slivers of red bell pepper and bright green snow peas in a pungent, golden sauce, a feast for the eyes as well as the tongue.
I've gone back regularly since discovering New Panda II to enjoy the friendly, homey atmosphere (a beautiful little girl, all concentration, folding a mountain of linen napkins fresh from the laundry), the funky dcor (plastic-coated green-checked tablecloths, Christmas decorations still hanging) and the exceptionally good food. Dieters will be happy to know that an entire section of the menu is dedicated to them, offering five combinations of steamed meat, shrimp or tofu and veggies with rice.
They've thought of everything, and have more than lived up to my expectations for all things panda. capsule
New Panda II
1213 N. Circle Drive (in the Safeway center at Circle and Galley), 574-8336, NewPandaII.com
Open Monday-Thursday, 11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m.; Friday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Saturday, 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Sunday, 11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m.
Free delivery within three miles, minimum $15 order.