Every year, my friend Sheri and I celebrate Jewish Christmas--a movie and Chinese food on Christmas eve. So this year we caught a 5:20 show at the Balboa, and decided to walk down Balboa and look for Best Panda, which I'd seen mentioned in a recent thread. It wasn't on 40th as the poster had guessed, but there was a big crowd at a storefront a couple of blocks further down, so we went on to investigate. Unbelievable mobs on this otherwise deserted street, waiting to get in to dinner at Best Panda. There must have been thirty people outside, and another two dozen standing inside, squeezed into the nonexistent front waiting area and the four-by-three-foot space in front of the cash register. Every table was filled, of course, with large parties and groaning lazy susans. We decided we had to give it a whirl, and so we flattened ourselves against the beer cooler in the back.
I don't know when I've ever been in a busier restaurant. It was hard to believe how much food was on those big round tables. Waiters were hollering as they barged by us with tray upon tray of lobsters and prawns and crisp fried fish and pork chops and chickens. Busboys were carrying giant tubs out to the dining room to fill with the platters and shells and bones to take back to the dishwashers--I caught a peek back there, and tubs of dirty dishes were completely covering the floor. Men were coming in the front door with five-gallon buckets full of live wriggling crabs, to replenish the kitchen. The poor woman with the waiting list was positively beseiged.
And every face but two was Chinese, and boy were people having a good time chowing down. Old people were laughing; children were brandishing crab claws and getting their mouths wiped; patriarchs were keeping everybody's rice bowls filled, and passing the best piece of claw across the tables to their mothers; young guys with haircuts were stepping out front to flip open cellphones. Even the people waiting were pretty jovial, for the most part. It was good that we weren't a large party, or we would have waited a lot longer than twenty minutes to score seats. We were put at one of the long communal tables by the often-open front door, which we thought might be too drafty but which wasn't since the crowd insulated us from the cold outside.
This place is cheap, and the food is very straightforward. Very down-home. Lots of specials on the wall, nearly all of them in English. The vast majority of the tables were having crab or lobster or both ($12.99 each for ginger/scallion or salt-and-pepper), steamed chicken, fried whole fish, and pork chops. We got an absolutely succulent ginger/scallion lobster, salt-and-pepper prawns which came with the heads and legs cooked to a delectable crunch--I even ate the tails--and sand dabs with vegetable (baby bok choy), as mild and fresh as could be. The portions were respectable, too; the only reason we didn't have more leftovers is that we made absolute pigs of ourselves (well, really, only I did). At the end, along with sliced oranges came a sweet thick soup, seemingly tapioca with tantalizing unidentifiable crunches and wispy flotsam.
Our bill came out to $28 with tip. I will definitely come here again. There are a dozen or so set dinner menus which look like a very good deal. I want to fill one of those big round tables and preside, laugh with friends, and laugh and use many napkins and get our teapot refilled many times. I don't know if Best Panda is very often so humming with life and joy as it was this Christmas eve, but this was a night we won't forget.
Best Panda Restaurant
4052 Balboa Street (at 42nd Ave.), San Francisco