Innovation Kitchen puts new spin on Panda Express favorites

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Immediately before placing their order at the front of the ingredients bar, customers at Pasadena’s new Panda Express “Innovation Kitchen” see a sign propped atop the protective glass: “What does American-Chinese mean to you?” Looking farther down the line, they get a full view of Panda Express’ kitchen, unique “mixology” tea bar and employees wrapping, dicing, slicing and frying in the service of defining that American-Chinese experience.

Traditional Panda Express chains give customers a sense of being right in the heat of the kitchen, harkening back to the glory days of the immersive fast-track American diner experience. But this experiment—the first of its kind for the company—allows customers to define the eating experience themselves.

The 31-year-old fast-food company lets diners at its new location have more autonomy over the menu items and their composition. For burrito enthusiasts, one noticeable difference between this branch and others is the introduction of a wrap, allowing hungry customers to complement their honey walnut shrimp or orange chicken craving with a scallion pancake tortilla. Along with fresh romaine salad, chow mein and rice, the tortilla acts as a “base” for the customer’s order.

Customers then choose one of several entree options. As opposed to other Panda Express locations, this branch aims to create a space for testing out new recipes, evident in the rotating “Chef’s Special” list at the front of the line. Recipes from the bold black pepper angus steak to the vegetarian-friendly spinach and kale comprise a list of current specials that vary week to week. These selections act as an inviting, comfortable way for customers both new and native to American-Chinese cuisine to branch out.

After stuffing a burrito with the unique three-pepper shrimp or traditional grilled mandarin chicken, customers can add “sauce and crunch,” such as the potent citrus ginger vinaigrette, crispy wantons, green pepper slaw and the spicy green onion sauce. The choices may seem overwhelming at first, but a good starter trick is to ask employees what they recommend to accompany an order. And take note: As a result of all this experimentation, the line moves slower than at other Panda Express shops, as customers take the time to make choices and imagine their taste buds firing with every combination.

Seating arrangements range from theater-style seats in front of high-definition TVs to communal high counter tops, but patrons should visit the “Panda Tea Bar” before taking a seat. Complete with sweet deserts like tiramisu, cookies and salted caramel chocolate cake, the tea bar also offers a bountiful drink selection. Fruit, milk and lemonade tea, as well as the impressive shaved ice selection, cover the electronic menu board. Customers have the luxury of choosing a level of sweetness and, for 50 cents each, adding boba, pudding, chia seeds or fruit jelly.

The tea shop truly marks the separation between traditional fast-food dining and this experimental variation. The Starbucks-esque tea testing station opens Americans to Chinese-oriented tea blends with a hint of American influence, as well as further attracting fans of the usual Panda Express experience.

With this cozy addition, the location offers a homey atmosphere fit for both large groups and solitary meals. Background music tiptoeing the line between Top 40 and independent coffee shop soundtrack establishes a conversational atmosphere. This location is just as easily a place to sit, read, write or watch the Major League Baseball playoffs as it is to hole up and engulf a melting-pot burrito. With every autonomous selection and expression of stylistic freedom at the Innovation Kitchen, both customers and the company are helping shape a new American-Chinese dining experience.

With the exception of a few select “Chef’s Special” items, prices are similar to general Panda Express locations. Items with one entree are an affordable $5–6 dollars and two entrees are $6–7, with tea selections between $3–4 before add-ons.

Take exit 30B off CA-134/I-210 E for Michillinda Ave. Turn left at E. Foothill Blvd. and take the next right into the plaza with Sears and the Corner Bakery Cafe. The address is 3867 E. Foothill Blvd., Pasadena, Calif. Hours are 10:00 a.m.–10:00 p.m. daily.