This post is part of the Reporter's Notebook blog.
The folks at parent Panda Restaurant Group Inc. like to describe the nearly 2,000-unit Panda Express chain as an American original.
It is the only limited-service Chinese concept to make it as a national American chain. And not just make it, but to thrive at a time when U.S. consumers are more educated about authentic ethnic cuisines from around the globe than ever before.
So it’s sort of fitting that Panda Express on Wednesday is introducing a version of the classic dish General Tso’s chicken as a limited-time offer, available through Dec. 27.
What’s interesting is not so much the dish, but the way Panda Express is attempting to explore the story behind it in marketing the LTO.
Believed to have been introduced to New York restaurants in the 1970s, General Tso’s chicken was once a staple on Chinese restaurant menus across the U.S. The dish embodies the notion of something Chinese-inspired and American-crafted. It’s comfort food.
The menu item inspired the 2014 documentary, “The Search for General Tso,” which explores the dish’s origins and how it reflects the American immigrant experience. Panda is taking the same approach with its marketing.
The recipe varies, but generally it includes deep-fried chicken bits glazed with a sweet and somewhat spicy sauce. The dish’s moniker comes from the romanized name of a Qing dynasty military leader, Tso Tsung-t’ang from the Hunan Province, according to Wikipedia, though you probably won’t find the dish in China.
At least, that’s one story. Jimmy Wang, Panda director of culinary innovation, said his team toured the oldest New York restaurants serving the dish, including Shun Lee Palace, which lays claim to being the first American restaurant to serve it. Outside the U.S., the Taiwanese restaurant Peng Chang-kuei claims to have invented it.
Wang gives tribute to both, but the version at Panda Express is a more contemporary take on the traditional; one that falls in line with Panda Express’s more Americanized flavor profiles.
Panda uses all-white-meat chicken, for example, while dark meat is more typical. Panda also includes green beans, red and yellow bell peppers and onions, and it is tossed in a sweet and slightly tangy sauce.
Wang said he toned down the spice and removed some of the dark soy for eye appeal. He also swapped some of the vinegar for citrus and added gochujang, a Korean flavor that he feels gives the dish umami. (It’s also very trendy.)
In fact, the traditional recipe for General Tso’s chicken was a bit of an inspiration for Panda’s insanely popular Orange Chicken, which was also inspired by the flavors of Hunan Province. Wang called it a West Coast derivation of General Tso’s, which evolved as it moved across the country over the years.
The limited-time offer was unveiled at the Glendale Galleria mall in Glendale, Calif., where the very first Panda Express unit opened in 1983.
The event feature a 13-foot-tall takeout container and art installation, created by Asian American artist Steven Wong, that allows guests to walk inside and learn more about the General Tso’s story.
Panda Restaurant Group was founded by Andrew Cherng, and his wife Peggy Cherng later joined the company. Together, they serve as co-CEOs.
He is originally from Yangzhou, China, but also lived in Taiwan and Japan. She is originally from Myanmar, also known as Burma, though she grew up in Hong Kong. They met in the U.S., after they both came to attend university.
Like General Tso’s chicken, Panda Express has been criticized by some over the years as being inauthentically Chinese.
But at a time when the presidential campaign is raising specters of giant walls at the border to shut people out, it’s good to see Panda Express celebrating the spirit of immigrants who come to the U.S. and create something that can be embraced by all: a truly American original.