I've been hearing things about #1 Panda House on Guess Rd. in Durham for a while and finally got around to giving it a try. My informants told me that it had been quite good until the chef departed some years ago, and that the original chef is now back.
Despite the goofy name, the restaurant serves reasonably authentic dim sum and Shanghai-style dishes. It's best known for "shengjian bao" (panfriend pork buns) and these were indeed terrific. Unfortunately, they are the only item on the menu not listed in English. I recommend pointing at the one thing you can't read and saying "I want that." We also had soup dumplings and chive and pork dumplings, both of which were good though not as stellar as the "shengjian bao."
We followed our dim sum appetizers with tofu and pork rolls and crispy duck. The rolls were nice without being special and the duck was crazily over-salted. We immediately sent it back. Having tasted the dish, the headwaiter was profusely apologetic and seemingly genuinely embarrassed. We substituted fish fillets in wine sauce, which were roughly on par with the tofu rolls. The fillets were tender,and the sauce had a subtle undertone of Chinese medicine.
We gleaned that there are two chefs in the kitchen. There's one chef for dim sum chef (this is the owner; this is presumably the chef who had left), and one chef for dishes. The dim sum chef is significantly better than the other chef, though both are well above the local Chinese standard.
The restaurant serves dim sum a la carte on Saturday and Sunday. I would recommend this with one reservation: the dim sum items are really expensive, perhaps twice as expensive as similar items served at nearby Hong Kong.
By far the best Chinese food in the Triangle these days is being served at Super Wok in Chatham Square, Cary, but there are significant difficulties in ordering it. Two entirely discrete restaurants are operating under the same roof. Two incompetent chefs produce feeble American-Chinese and Thai dishes for Americans, while Chef Chen produces really vibrant and authentic Szehuan dishes for Chinese. One issue is that the Chinese menu is entirely in Chinese; another issue is that Chef Chen is looking to set up his own restaurant. He looked at Jade Palace in Chapel Hill, but decided to pass. I will keep everybody informed as best I can. The thing to do, while the opportunity lasts, is to order whatever dishes Chef Chen cares to make you.
The problem with so much Chinese cuisine in America, if you will forgive some cultural theorizing, is that Chinese chefs simply refuse to believe that Americans will like their best cooking. This is for some reason culturally hard-wired into them. Hence the baleful phenomenon of the two menus.
Case in point: we asked Chef Chen to make us dishes of his own choosing the other night. We wound up with a sweet-and-sour fish and a sweet-and-sour beef. Both were excellent in their way, but not really authentic, and certainly not the kind of food we usually order. My wife said this was in token of my Western palette. I found the episode strange and telling, as we order the authentic Szichaun food on the menu all the time, and Chef Chen jolly well knows it. He must believe I am unhappily deferring to my wife.
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