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Panda Inn: Exotic Sunday relaxation

Sunday is my day of rest. I try to avoid the telephone and practically bite my hand to keep from turning on my computer. I'm one of the fortunate people who have time on weekends to unwind and do some of the things that I just don't have time to do during the rest of the week.

In between golf, bike riding and watching ballgames, I block out time for relaxed eating. During the week, I eat on the run all too often, grabbing bites between meetings or events. But, on weekends, I like to just sit back, savor my meals and let other people take care of me. That's why I'm such of fan of one of our culinary institutions, Sunday brunch.

Many restaurants offer special Sunday brunches, where printed menus aren't used. They just lay out a sumptuous feast, dish after succulent dish of temptation. There is often a "hot" area, where a carver may dispense individual portions of signature dishes but, for the most part, diners help themselves to whatever they wish, as much as they wish. There are frequently salads to start, followed by a number of entrees, and finished by an expansive choice of desserts. Many restaurants include champagne with the meal, to wash down all the good food.

This is slow, relaxed, eat-at-your-own-pace kind of dining. Chew slowly, sip slowly -- no one is rushing you to finish and get out. There may even be a game on TV. It's easier to cheer the home team with a full mouth or a full belly.

As much as I love Sunday brunch, I was tired of the typical pasta and roast beef entrees. Where could I go that was different, exotic, with new and exciting flavors for a jaded palate? Let's try Panda Inn, I thought.

Panda Inn obviously serves Chinese cuisine. But it is not just ordinary Chinese food. It is great Chinese food, one of my favorite ethnic restaurants. Located at the top of Horton Plaza, it is easy to get to and offers one of the most precious commodities in the downtown core -- free parking.

The parent company also owns Panda Express, with over 700 fast food outlets nationwide. But there are only five Panda Inns. They are the company's "fine dining" outlets, and reflect the founders' aspirations for outstanding cuisine.

The style of cooking is Mandarin and Szechuan. Mandarin tends to be mild and Szechuan tend to be hot. But the tastes merge to create unique flavors and sensations.

The success of the chain is built on the recipes of Ming Tsai Cherng and his son, Andrew Cherng. These master chefs brought the secrets of great flavor from China and opened their first business in Pasadena in 1973. It has been growing since.

The dČcor of the restaurant is distinctively Chinese. Room dividers look like the inside of pagodas. Chinese artifacts such as Xian horses, exquisitely decorated vases and luxurious boots decorate the walls. There are alcoves for small groups and larger dining rooms with individual tables that could be also used for larger groups. A comfortable outdoor patio is a great place for dining and "people watching" shoppers in the plaza.

My server poured champagne to loosen my spirit for the feast to come. After a few sips, I strolled over to the "appetizer" section. No salad here. But I found fabulous Chinese pot stickers, with delightful meat filing. These pot stickers were large, with thick and crispy exterior. Sesame Baby back ribs were thickly coated with a sweet tasting glaze and liberally covered with seeds. Vegetable spring rolls were tightly wrapped and flaky on the outside but hot and soft on the inside, with a delightful hoisin sauce to dip into. At the end of the counter, a server made my favorite appetizer, several mooshu duck pancakes, shredded crispy duck rolled into thin pancakes made out of flour and sesame oil, also served with hoisin sauce.

As a special treat, my server brought over a bowl of egg drop soup, steaming and fragrant with promise of good taste.

A long table held the entrees, a selection of favorites off the daily menu. Lo-mein noodles satisfied my yearning for a pasta-like dish, with thick round noodles that have a distinctive flavor and texture. Scampi scallops were large and meaty, but spicy and hot, an unconventional but excellent preparation. Orange chicken was just that -- orange sauce coating chunks of chicken, spicy on the outside and mild inside. I allowed myself several helping of my favorite entrČe, honey walnut shrimp -- large, glazed shrimp with sweet, candied walnuts. The combination is just unbeatable.

Groaning, I lurched to the dessert table to contemplate platters filled with chocolate, sweet pastries and plates of sliced fruit. My dessert choices were accompanied with lots of hot, fragrant tea and Panda Inn's signature white chocolate fortune cookies. I felt so good I decided to play the number inside the fortune cookie on my next Lotto purchase. I've read that a number of recent big winners back East got their inspiration at their local Chinese restaurants.

Prices for this incredible, filling and relaxing meal are moderate. The time spent over Sunday brunch at Panda Inn can be a refreshing start to a great week. Reservations are strongly recommended. Call (619) 233-7800 for information and reservations.


Rottenberg is editor of Dining San Diego Magazine and member of the California Restaurant Writers Association. Send comments to the editor@sddt.com. All letters are forwarded to the author and may be used as Letters to the Editor.

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