I thought I had Panda King pegged the first time I saw its glowing sign and semi-imperial facade shining from a Terrytown strip mall. It offers a bargain buffet, and that means endless quantities of Americanized Chinese food and production-line sushi. But Panda King encompasses at least two more restaurant experiences, depending on when you visit and how adventurous you are when ordering.
A connected dining room next door does business as Panda King Fine Dining, and on weekends, from 10:30 a.m. to 3 p.m., it operates as a dim sum tearoom. Waitresses wheel airline-style carts from table to table offering traditional Chinese brunch fare of savory buns, soups, small portions of noodles and vegetables and, most of all, an array of dumplings. These two-bite beauties are the handiwork of chef Shing Kwum Lam, a native of Hong Kong, who essentially spends his week prepping for the weekend's dim sum rush.
The Ngo family owned a Panda King in Kenner before Hurricane Katrina, but moved the operation to Terrytown afterward. The demand for a bargain buffet may be as strong here as anywhere else, but the move set up the restaurant for the more traditional sidelines it added here. Panda King shares the parking lot with Hong Kong Market, the area's largest Asian grocery, and many weekend shoppers now seem to schedule a dim sum visit to Panda King while they're in the neighborhood. Each morning I've visited for dim sum, the place was buzzing with so many large parties that I had to wait for an open table.
The operation has a third side as well. Chef Lam created a menu of traditional Hong Kong-style cuisine to serve at dinner at Panda King Fine Dining. Demand wasn't high enough to keep the lights on through the week, but manager Sophie Tran says that model may be restored soon. For now, this dinner menu is served by request on the buffet side of the operation any night.
Written in English, Chinese and Vietnamese, this menu covers an enormous range of dishes, with entrees like squid, quail and short ribs turning up frequently. There also is a section devoted to in-shell crabs and a roster of soups served in family-size portions. The list includes several varieties of the controversial shark fin soup, which I don't care to consume but mention here since their mere offer may be enough to attract or repel some diners.
Lobsters, however, are fair game in my mind, and Panda King prepares them steamed whole, chopped and stir-fried with ginger and green onion or black pepper butter sauce, leaving you to shuck chunks of tail and claw from the shell.
You don't need to delve too far into Chinese cooking here to get vastly better meals than the Americanized Chinese norm, including the examples of such in Panda King's own buffet. For instance, XO sauce, made in part with fermented shellfish, might sound exotic, but it tastes mostly of garlic and chili oil and adds a pulsing, compelling flavor to dishes like stir-fried shredded pork and crunchy tofu sticks.
It doesn't take much derring-do or even cultural familiarity to eat well at Panda King. You just have to ask for the menu and dig in.