What It Was Like To Eat At The First Panda Express? If you want to know about this then you have come to the right place.
Did you have the good fortune to dine at the original Panda Express when it first debuted in 1983? If so, you already know that it was an experience unlike any other.
The restaurant stood out from the competition at the time by providing fast-casual Chinese food that was both good and reasonably priced.
But what was the first Panda Express actually like to eat at? Did the food live up to everyone’s expectations? Was the ambiance dynamic and vivacious? Was the restaurant’s reputation justified?
We’ll reflect back on the inaugural Panda Express in this article and respond to all of your queries. We’ll also discuss the restaurant’s evolution over time and why it’s still so well-liked today.
What It Was Like To Eat At The First Panda Express
Since 1983, Panda Express has been a quick-service restaurant that serves Chinese food. The company and mainstay of food courts has really set the stage for Chinese food made in the U.S.
Popular dishes like Orange Chicken and Honey Walnut Shrimp have helped the company grow into a $1 billion empire with over 2,000 Locations around the world.
People can’t get enough of all things Panda, so the company has to keep making new dishes to keep up with demand.
Today, the company’s owners, Andrew and Peggy Cherng, run it as part of the Panda Restaurant Group, which also runs Hibachi-San and Panda Inn.
The Cherngs have had a lot of success as leaders and people who give money to good causes. But at one time, Panda Express wasn’t a worldwide hit that got praise from Fortune and Forbes.
When the couple moved to Southern California in the 1970s, they started building restaurants that served Asian foods that were made from scratch.
Later, one business would grow out of the brick-and-mortar retail boom and help define the role of the mall food court in the U.S. food scene.
The first Panda Express brings back memories (and a huge desire for spring rolls), but there’s a lot more to the story than shiny shopping centers and big plates of food.
Have you ever thought what the first Panda Express was like?
The First Panda Express Was Busy From The Get-Go
It didn’t take long for the first Panda Express to make a name for itself and build a loyal customer base of hungry shoppers looking for a bite to eat while shopping.
Andrew Cherng would talk to people who left Panda Inn because there were no more tables, and the ease of Panda Express made it a hit right away.
There’s no question that you’d have to wait a little bit for your main dishes, especially if you went during lunch or dinner rush hours like we do.
Some people don’t like malls because they are so crowded. Weaving through huge crowds of strangers can make you feel like a sardine in a can fast.
Even so, the crowded, disorienting atmosphere is exactly what made Panda Express grow into the business it is today.
In fact, in an interview for the chain’s own podcast, Panda Expressed, Andrew Cherng said that the mall model helped bring in the customers the business needed to grow.
People go to stores to do a lot of different things, like try on clothes or buy gadgets, so it’s not hard to find people who might be interested in trying out a new restaurant.
A Small Team Worked at The First Restaurant
Panda Express is a huge chain now, and the huge staff (almost 40,000 at the time of this writing) makes sure you don’t forget it. But when it first started, that number didn’t even come close to 12 people.
It’s easy to forget that Panda Express used to be a mom-and-pop shop, but nothing shows that better than the fact that only a few people are making egg rolls and noodle platters. Back then, there were only 10 people working for the company.
Those 10 people cooked, cleaned, and dealt with the constant flow of customers, whose hunger pulled them in like gravity.
Most chains have about 17 workers per store, which is about twice as many as Panda Express had in 1983. This should give you an idea of how hard it was for the new business to get started.
But it didn’t take long for it to get back on its feet. Even though the atmosphere was the kind of pressure cooker that could make some restaurant owners give up, starting out with such a small team wasn’t the disaster you might think it was.
In fact, Andrew Cherng is very proud of how the new business was able to survive the chaos, and he remembered how “exciting” the restaurant was on its first day of business.
Panda Express Emerged Out of an Earlier Restaurant
The first Panda Express opened in Glendale, California, but the idea for it came from Pasadena in some ways.That’s because Andrew Cherng was busy running his first business, Panda Inn, for ten years before the chain opened.
The Chinese restaurant was nothing like the fast food that Panda Express would become known for. Instead, it had an expensive look and served traditional dishes in a nice place to sit down.
It was really run by the family. Cherng’s father, Ming-Tsai, was in charge of the cooking, and the rest of the family, including Andrew, waited tables and got to know the customers. Because money was tight, they all worked for free.
How did the food taste? In a 2013 interview with KCET, Cherng said that some of the local specialties at the time were more like usual Asian specialties in the area.
Moo Shu Pork, a dish involving stir-fried pork with egg and vegetables in a gingery soy sauce, was one of the best meals at Panda Inn. This dish shares similarities with Black Pepper Chicken and Beijing Beef, both of which chefs still prepare in woks today.
Panda Inn is very different from its fast-casual cousin because the food is better and the atmosphere is nicer.
You Would have had to go to the Mall to Eat at the Original Panda Express
Fashion and music were really cool in the 1980s. At the time, buying at the mall was the “it” thing to do for many people.
Even though food courts only make up a small part of the chain’s presence, Panda Express’ history is inextricably linked to these big-box stores because that’s where it all began.
The first Panda Express opened at the Glendale Galleria Mall in Los Angeles County, which is a great place to shop.
If you picture people waiting in line at the counter to buy lunch, you’ll see that not much has changed since October 1983, when Panda Express first opened.
Now, it’s easy to see why the Cherngs went straight to the mall after leaving Panda Inn.
As fast food became a regular part of American life, it was clear that people wanted quick, easy options that tasted just as good as anything served at a sit-down restaurant.
In fact, the name of the restaurant tells you what you need to know: an “express” diner is one with quick takeout service instead of table service. That is, Panda Express is a great place to eat after trying on clothes at Macy’s.
A Star Football Coach Helped Launch the First Location
Los Angeles is a busy place, and it’s not unusual for business owners to meet some of the well-connected people who live there. This was the Donahue family for the people who started Panda Express.
Terry Donahue may be best known for getting the UCLA Bruins to win, but he also played a big part in making Panda Express popular.
One of the more interesting stories about the business is how the sports star came up with the idea for a casual Chinese restaurant at the Glendale Galleria.
The story goes that Donahue went to Panda Inn often, where he met the couple and invited them to open a new restaurant at the shopping center described above.
The Glendale Galleria was bought by the Donahue family, so Terry told me that there is now more space in the food court.
Andrew Cherng was smart to take advantage of this chance meeting and use a Panda Express machine to shoot his shot. After 40 years and thousands of shops, it’s clear that the move was a good one.
The Food Was Different From Typical Chinese Fare Offered at The Time
Most people think of the food that Panda Express makes as American-style Chinese, but when you look at it more closely, you can see that it has spicy, peppery notes from both Mandarin and Szechuan.
Let’s just say that this kind of mix wasn’t common in the early 1980s. At the time, most of the foods served in Southern California were in the Cantonese style.
Cantonese food, which came to the U.S. from South China and became famous there, is a good example of what most people order when they order takeout: Some of the things that make this food unique are the mild combinations of steamed rice, grilled vegetables, and meats like chicken and pork.
Because Cantonese food is so famous, there are a lot of restaurants that serve it. During the time of the Panda Inn, Andrew Cherng ran into this problem early on.
The way he solved it to make his restaurant stand out from the rest set the tone for his future chain. He switched up the products and spices and focused on dishes that people wouldn’t get anywhere else.
Employees Would Take Your Order on a Computer
Today, workers at fast food places type your order into a computer. It’s quick and doesn’t take any extra work to get the information to the back-of-house.
This method, called Point-of-Sale (POS), works the same way that Panda Express did in the early 1980s. More likely, though, was that the Glendale restaurant would have been one of the few places to eat that had this kind of technology.
People often think of Peggy Cherng as half of Panda Express’s leadership team, but it was really her engineering background that made the mall staple into a kingdom that can’t be destroyed.
She went to school for math and computer science, so she was able to use those skills to make a software tool for the business.
The digital system not only let people place orders on a screen, but it also made it easier to automate jobs that used to take a lot of time, like tracking down supplies and analyzing data.
As Cherng told the Los Angeles Times in 2015, it was hard to get the hang of at first, just like any other new technology. But once the rough spots were smoothed out, serving meal after meal became very easy.
The Menu Contained Tweaked Versions of Panda Inn’s Dishes
Since Panda Inn served as the original model for Panda Express, you might be wondering which parts of the original model were altered to suit the express model.
In the food area, many of the main dishes at the Panda Inn were stripped down so that they could be made faster in the kitchen. So, early buyers would have also been able to enjoy special creations.
Ming-Tsai Cherng, who was married to Andrew Cherng, ran the kitchen at Panda Inn. Panda Express’s whole menu is based on the foods he came up with.
Changing from one place to another may seem easy, but changing the dishes wasn’t exactly a walk in the park. To fit with the laid-back feel of a food court, the main dishes had to be hot, fresh, and ready to eat right away.
Kazan Today says that many of the changes were made after the restaurant opened to the public.
The Cherngs had to change as they tried to figure out if certain things could live on a steam table for a long time or if they would wilt and get soggy.
Most likely, the chain’s strict policy of making food in small amounts often came from food that was too soft in the past.
Orange Chicken Was Nowhere On the Menu
Join the club if you always get Orange Chicken from Panda Express. Fans drool over this baked treat, which is without a doubt the best thing on the menu. It’s chewy, sour, and crunchy in all the right places.
It sells more than any other dish every year, but people who have never been to the Glendale Galleria would not know about it.
Panda Express had the item on its menu for about four years before it became popular. Yes, it took four long years (almost half a decade) before the famous food was added to the menu in 1987.
Today, Orange Chicken is Panda Express’s most famous dish, but when Andy Kao, the chain’s chef, first thought of it, it was just a local favorite.
For those who don’t know, the dish was first made in Hawaii, where a few places served it before it became a national favorite.
Even better, the people who ate it before the rest of the country didn’t eat it the way we do now. Early versions in the Aloha State featured bone-in chicken instead of the juicy, all-meat, breaded pieces we see today.
You Can Find Many of The Same Entrées Today
As Panda Express grows into a billion-dollar brand, it’s natural that some menu items will come and go.
With a few exceptions, like the Orange Chicken, the food court items from the restaurant’s early days aren’t too different from what the chain serves now.
As long as the company has been in a food court, the same tasty choices have been on the menu, like stir-fried pork or mountains of chow mein.
Kung Pao Chicken is one example of a dish that people have been ordering for years. It is a standard for a reason. Heat and spice are important in Szechwan cooking, so the food has always had a bite that makes your tongue tingle.
The only thing that might be different is that the dish now has a “Wok Smart” label that says it is a healthy choice.
Other than that, the recipe of peanuts, chicken, chopped peppers, and zucchini, which Cherng says is a special touch, is very similar to what the chain makes today.
Panda Express May Have Been Your First Taste of Chain Chinese Food
Now, Panda Express isn’t the only fast-food chain on the block that sells spring rolls. Today, Chinese chain places like Pei Wei and P.F. Chang’s, among many others, serve Asian food and are very easy to get to.
The Glendale restaurant was by no means the first Chinese restaurant, but it could have been your first taste of modern Chinese chain food at the time. Simply put, this brand was the first to do it in the U.S. and have a lot of success.
Since the 1980s, fast food has changed a lot, and you can see that by looking at what the food area looked like before Panda moved in.
Most shops would have been full of fast food places like pretzels, hot dogs, and pizza by the slice, with only a few Greek restaurants.
Even though most of the foods sold at food halls in the 1980s would have made good snacks, there were a few that were not. At the time, Panda Express was one of the few places in the food area that served full plates with rice, vegetables, and noodles.
You Can Still Eat at the First Panda Express
The Glendale Galleria has stayed as one of the best places to shop in Southern California, which means that the first Panda Express has also been around for a long time. You can see the old counter where food was served if you go to the first floor.
You can also check out other places for the first time, like the Disney shop. You’ll be able to eat like it’s 1983 in many ways, even though many of the stores are probably different.
This is because, for the most part, the restaurant looks almost exactly the same.
Andrew Cherng has talked about the structure before, saying that the steam tables, the “build your own” menu, and the dishes are pretty much the same as they were when Panda Express first opened, and customers agree.
One Reddit user said that the restaurant looks like it did 35 years ago. So, if you live in that part of town or just happen to be there, there’s still a chance to live out your wildest mall dreams, which always end with Panda Express.
Panda Express Reviews
→”The food was incredible! Both of the meals I had—the orange chicken & the chow mein—were bursting with flavor. Additionally, the portions were enormous.
→”I adored the idea of fast-casual. Being able to quickly order a great Chinese supper at a reasonable price was quite convenient.
→”The employees were really welcoming & helpful. They took care to make sure I had a wonderful time.
→”Panda Express revolutionized Chinese food. It allowed consumers to eat delectable, authentic Chinese food without having to shell out a lot of cash.
For many people, dining at the first Panda Express was a revolutionary experience. It provided a fresh & fun way to eat Chinese food & it quickly gained popularity as a gathering place for both families & groups of friends.
The fast-casual Chinese cuisine sector got its start thanks to the restaurant’s popularity & it’s still a popular option today.
Opening and Closing Hours
|Day||Opening Hours||Closing Hours|
|Monday||10:30 AM||9:30 PM|
|Tuesday||10:30 AM||9:30 PM|
|Wednesday||10:30 AM||9:30 PM|
|Thursday||10:30 AM||9:30 PM|
|Friday||10:30 AM||10:00 PM|
|Saturday||10:30 AM||10:00 PM|
|Sunday||10:30 AM||9:30 PM|
Here is a list of links to important information about Panda Express restaurants, like where they are, what they serve, how to work there, and much more.
|Panda Express Menu||Check here|
|Panda Express Locations||Check here|
|Panda Express Gift Cards||Check here|
|Panda Express Online Order||Check here|
|Panda Express contact form||Check here|
|Panda Express Nutritional & Allergy Info||Check here|
Panda Express Contact Information
➥ Panda Express Corporate Office Address:
➥ Panda Express Corporate Phone Number: (626) 799-9898
➥ Panda Express Toll-Free Number: (800) 877-8988
FAQs About Panda Express
How did Panda Express become so popular?
Panda Express gained popularity through its flavorful dishes, commitment to quality, and efficient service. The combination of American and Chinese influences created a unique and satisfying dining experience.
What are some must-try dishes at Panda Express?
Some popular dishes to try at Panda Express include Orange Chicken, Broccoli Beef, Kung Pao Chicken, and Honey Walnut Shrimp.
How many Panda Express locations are there today?
As of now, there are over 2,200 Panda Express locations across the United States, making it the largest American-Chinese restaurant chain in the country.
Can I still visit the first Panda Express restaurant?
No, the first Panda Express restaurant in Glendale, California, has since closed. However, you can visit one of the many Panda Express locations across the United States.
Can I customize my meal at Panda Express?
Yes, Panda Express offers customization options where you can choose your main protein, side dishes, and sauce combinations to create a meal tailored to your preferences.
Does Panda Express offer delivery or takeout options?
Yes, Panda Express provides delivery and takeout options for customers who prefer to enjoy their meals at home or on the go.
Are there any special promotions or discounts available at Panda Express?
Panda Express occasionally offers special promotions, discounts, and limited-time menu items. Keep an eye on their website or sign up for their email newsletter to stay updated on the latest deals and offers.
What was the menu like at the first Panda Express?
Like the current menu, the original Panda Express’s menu featured well-known items like Orange Chicken, Beijing Beef & Chow Mein. There were a few variations, though, like the fact that the original Panda Express offered bone-in chicken rather than the boneless chicken it does now.
What was the atmosphere like at the first Panda Express?
The first Panda Express was a modest, unpretentious eatery. There was a lot of activity because it was in a food court. However, the service was quick & courteous, & the food was always hot & fresh.
What was the average cost of a meal at the first Panda Express?
At the first Panda Express, meals typically cost $5 or so. At the time, this was a fairly reasonable price, making Panda Express a popular choice for families & people on the go.
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