It can’t all be serious work here at General Shu’s.
This new Panda Express advertisement has been popping up on television.
A young father ruminates over the “large, succulent” shrimp between his chopsticks, recalling a traumatic childhood incident with fine dining.
A loosely tied bow tie droops off of a slightly puffy shirt. Superfluous sets of silverware and stale rolls surround a tacky booth. The child’s surf and turf arrives alongside classic mid-to-late 20th century sides, steamed broccoli and two onion rings. Five shrimp tower precariously on top of the steak until a light prod with a fork topples this “elegant” steeple.
Sharp cries of “Dad!” recall the man back into his favorite brightly lit fast casual chain. Enthusiasm sweeps away the father’s trepidation, bright soda cups and vegetables supplant the drab steakhouse, and a whoosh escorts steak and shrimp impaled on a chopstick swinging through the air.
The commercial exclaims, “The finer things in life are best enjoyed with chopsticks.” Apparently however, they are best enjoyed when using chopsticks improperly. Panda harnesses the symbolic luxury of surf and turf but also presents a playful knowingness. Decades of endless shrimp and frozen lobster tails snuggled up against 4 oz. sirloin have degraded the pairing’s symbolic value. Panda promotes its use of “premium Angus” beef but pairs quality ingredients with playfulness and creativity. Shots of flames engulfing flying ingredients highlight novelty and exoticism. The silver-domed serving platter and formal waiters are stale, far from the physical pleasures of sizzles and blazing heat embodied through the wok. Wok-Seared Steak and Shrimp reinvents a comforting combination from American dining’s past through the familial ritual of Chinese take-out and the freshness of wok-frying.
The Objective Review:
Is that extra $1.25 for this premium entrée worth it? Unfortunately, flaccid shrimp can’t keep up with the luxury factor of a jumbo prawn or lobster tail. Panda loses points here with the small bits of steak. Premium should convey satisfying bites into meaty chunks of beef. Just keep asking for samples of walnut shrimp and insert a rehearsed glance towards the black pepper chicken to pretend like you’ll actually order it one day.
Ancestral Shame: 3/10
Despite my first post on appreciating American Chinese food, some dishes do a better job of translating Chinese cuisine than others. The higher the score here, the more ashamed I feel admitting I might enjoy the dish. The potatoes earn Panda some credit here. Potatoes are found in some regional Chinese cuisines, notably Yunnan cuisine, but few Americans know about these dishes. I’m not so sure about the potatoes’ place in this dish. Maybe the tubers present a play on steak and potatoes or are just a cheap filler. Either way, I’ll give Panda some points for expanding their range of regional Chinese ingredients.
A key part of American Chinese food is how cornstarch laden sauce seeps into the rice below, providing perfect bites of sweetness tempered by the neutral canvas of grains. While I credit Panda for covering he steak and shrimp with just enough sauce, the liquid’s thick nature leaves little extra for the rice. Also, an intense sweetness overpowers the soy, chili, and other flavors that better accompany rice. For the epitome of this trinity, look at Hainan chicken dipped into viscous dark soy, bright ginger, and sweet and acidic chili.
I had to imitate the commercial. Despite the deep feelings of guilt that accompany misusing chopsticks and the fear that I might get slapped on the hand at any instant. The softness of both the shrimp and the steak meant that I made the above skewer with only one hand, easily poking the chopstick through the meat. The vegetables would provide textural contrast, and the kid should really consider adding them to his skewers.
Overall, this dish is dominated by an overpowering sweetness. The special sauce evokes chili, ginger, garlic, and soy, but its red color and sweetness remind me of an unbalanced ketchup shrimp rather than a fulfilling surf and turf. The best dishes at Panda Express take tastes and ratchet them to the highest level. Consider the mushroom chicken’s marvelous experiment in umami or the successful blend of sweet and salty behind orange chicken. The saccharine flavor profile and randomly assembled vegetables place Wok-Seared Steak and Shrimp into the realm of stir fry rather than a cohesive dish.
Better than: Sweetfire Chicken Breast
Worse than: Broccoli Beef