Panda Garden 

On one plate...

The first thing I notice after we park the car are the little brass-colored cats-cat statues, a pair of them, their little left paws waving from the drive up window. I don't know why this little eatery on Overland has waving cats in its window, but it does. The people I'm with-most of whom have been here before-are unphased, except for P.J., who says, "Look! The cats!" and then makes a similar, but more obnoxious waving motion.

Panda Garden is small, with just enough room for perhaps 40 or 50 diners. So, when the 10 of us arrive, the place seems suddenly crowded. Still, the tables and booths are situated in such a way that once we gather at a large table, we don't notice our close proximity to everyone around us. This is good for us, but perhaps bad for the other lunchtime clientele, as we are a yacky group of rather obnoxious high school teachers and pump up the decibel level with rants on classroom behavior problems and administrative abominations.

The menu is huge. In fact, I don't know how they fit all of the food on the menu into such a small kitchen space. Split between Chinese and Japanese offerings, there are over 200 different items. The sushi bar is loaded down with all kinds of fresh fish and the other, regular sushi fixins (Is it okay to call the stuff that goes into sushi "fixins"?).

Because the menu is so expansive, and because we are all blathering like morons, we keep the waitress ricocheting around the table hoping someone will finally begin ordering food. Once we start, I don't know how she keeps any of it organized, but she seems completely unflustered. I certainly can't tell you all of the food ordered, but it arrives quickly, and everyone seems to receive what they ordered. This is confirmed by Derek, who abhors vegetables.

"It's exactly the way I ordered it," he says. "Not a single vegetable." His palate is boring, but he's thrilled. The rest are likewise ecstatic when their food arrives. And there is a lot of food. A quick glance around the table confirms that all of us are equally absorbed in stuffing our pie holes full of various kinds of noodles and sushi. Egg drop soup, Moo Shu pork, eel and avocado roll, curry, sesame, lemon, tangerine, and tempura chicken-we graze that table with pure efficiency. The lemon chicken is described as "subtle, with tangy undertones" (an English teacher), while the Prawn Amazing is "a cluster of spice" (an art teacher). My own Mandarin Chicken is pretty spectacular, and I inhale it.

The prices at Panda Garden are amazingly inexpensive. The most expensive item on the menu is the Pine Nut Duck, which, according to the menu is a "crispy boneless duck served with mixed Chinese vegetables and topped with pine nuts," and "not to be missed!" At just $12.95, it sounds like a bargain.

We leave utterly stuffed and happy. Various positive adjectives-from "amazing" and "awesome," to the more obscure "prodigious" and "wunderbar!"-are shared in the parking lot. Predictably, the little brass felines wave goodbye to us, and even I, the most professional skeptic of the bunch, can't help but wave back.

-Chuck McHenry says put a fork in him, he's done. Farewell gastronomes.

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