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Panda City Serves Up Tasteful Chinese Fare

August 20, 1992|DAVID NELSON | David Nelson regularly reviews restaurants for The Times in San Diego. His column also appears in Calendar on Fridays.

The slowly expanding Panda Inn chain, which includes the stellar Plum Tree in L.A.'s Chinatown and the Panda Inn at Horton Plaza, has opened Panda City in a Carlsbad shopping center.

Many Chinese houses include "Panda" in their names these days, since the furry beasts have such cachet and no one, of course, wants to eat them. But the connection between Panda City and its parent chain depends upon no such slender connection as a similarity of names: The relationship is immediately evident by the inclusion of Plum Tree beef on the menu.

This dish probably has made more friends for Chinatown's Plum Tree than virtually any dish has for any eatery since Ray Kroc built McDonald's on the basis of an inexpensive hamburger.

Plum Tree beef may come to look unsophisticated at some point in the future, but this dish, with big, bold flavors and a dozen sensations, from pungent through spicy to sweet, is endearing and probably enduring. It should be on the shopping list of anyone who browses Panda City's bill of fare. The beef is first batter-fried, then stir-fried with orange peel, scallions and a suave sauce. A new variation called Plum Tree shrimp combines the critters with a similar sauce fleshed out with mushrooms and celery.

Other signatures include the trio of "pasta salads," which really aren't salads at all--they exclude greenery--and, for that matter, are served warm. The noodles are surprisingly Italian in character--and much like fettuccine--and are sauced rather boldly. The Szechwan version is just barely spicy, and quite refreshing.

It may be this refreshing quality that led the restaurant to designate these dishes "salads." A seafood version includes shrimp and sliced scallops, and is luxurious.

The menu seems well-organized and inclusive, rather than ramblingly large like some Chinese lists. While the approach no longer seems as innovative as when the Panda Inn opened at Horton Plaza, this may be because other establishments have followed the chain's lead and installed menus more thoughtful and interesting than in the days in which sweet-and-sour pork reigned supreme.

Just the same, Panda City's menu rather surprisingly includes sections devoted to chop suey and egg foo young, dishes of dubious pedigree that ambitious places generally decline to serve. The intention must be to cover as many bases as possible by appealing to the broadest range of tastes.

The vegetable heading includes an exceptional number of dishes, all of which, most surprisingly, are meatless. In Chinese cooking, the fact that a dish is based on vegetables by no means implies vegetarianism, since many will include bits of minced pork or some other meat. But the dishes here do follow the vegetarian path, even the braised string beans, which are about as good a way to enjoy string beans as can be imagined, and are even more of a pleasure when the tasty, crisp mound is seasoned with savory shreds of pork.

What may be the most unusual offering, the vegetables with pickle sauce, is well worth a try, although the veggies themselves were a little overdone and mushy on the occasion they were sampled. The restaurant builds the sauce with Chinese pickles, and these have a salty, slightly spicy pungency that makes them quite distinctive. The sauce nonetheless is subtle, and a pleasure.

The sliced chicken with Chinese mushrooms, always a good choice when the table's menu includes a couple of spicy dishes, was well-flavored, but the chicken itself seemed to have been hacked rather than sliced and was rather unappealing.

Panda City also features Hunan lamb (braised with leeks in a pungent sauce), lemon scallops, a broad selection of noodles, excellent steamed dumplings, lobster in black bean sauce and much more.

Many dishes are starred to indicate "hot and spicy," but few dishes exceed the most timid degree of seasoning. The restaurant does not aim to offend.

It does offend in one department: The tablecloths are protected by paper place mats that, for reasons difficult to understand, have been encased in plastic sheets. The tablecloth of a recent visit showed signs of previous diners who had managed to splash beyond the edges of the place mats. The cloth, needless to say, should have been changed, as should be this strange manner of setting the table.

Otherwise, the decor is low-key, softly colored and attractive.

Panda City

7040 Avenida Encinas, Carlsbad

Calls: 431-7001

Hours: Lunch and dinner daily

Cost: Entrees $5.95 to $10.95; dinner for two, including a glass of wine each, tax and tip, about $20 to $40

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