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Ray Routhier

Portland Press Herald staff writer Ray Routhier will try anything. Once. During 20 years at the Press Herald he’s been equally attracted to stories that are unusually quirky and seemingly mundane. He’s taken rides on garbage trucks, sought out the mother of two rock stars, dug clams, raked blueberries, and spent time with the family of bedridden man who finds strength in music. Nothing too dangerous mind you, just adventurous enough to find the stories of real Mainers doing real cool things.

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Posted: November 13, 2017

Panda Garden’s pupu is nothing to pooh-pooh

Written by: Ray Routhier
The PuPu platter was tasty and large enough to take a lot of it home. Photos by Ray Routhier

The PuPu platter was tasty and large enough to take a lot of it home. Photos by Ray Routhier

As a kid, I loved pupu platters, simply because it was so much fun to say the name.

As a grownup, I’ve become nostalgic over time about those wondrous Chinese appetizer platters of my youth. I like dumpling houses and Asian-fusion as much as the next person, but sometimes I want to munch out on ribs, chicken wings, eggs rolls and other Chinese restaurant comfort foods.

And that’s exactly what I was able to do when I had lunch the other day at Panda Garden, located in a small shopping plaza on Brighton Avenue in Portland.

I was in the mood for the kind of Chinese food I used to get at the China Dragon in Hooksett, N.H., as a youth in the 1970s. It was a big old rambling place on a rural road outside of Manchester, with fountains and dragon sculptures, serving fried rice, spare ribs, jumbo shrimp, chow mein and the like.

The interior of Panda Garden

The interior of Panda Garden

Panda Garden is not rambling. but it has paintings of pandas on the walls and food that definitely takes me back to my time at the China Dragon.

I was especially excited to see that I could order a pupu platter for one, for lunch, for $9.95. The appetizer combo included boneless pork ribs, crab Rangoon, teriyaki beef on a stick, an egg roll with sweet sauce, chicken fingers and chicken wings.

Even though it said it was a platter for one, I ordered a cup of egg drop soup ($2.75) and ended up taking half the contents of the pupu platter home with me.

The platter’s ribs were as I remembered them from my youth, with a sticky red glaze. They were also very tender. The beef on a stick had a similar glaze, but was a little chewier.

The wings were golden and crispy and just mildly spicy. The chicken fingers were in a fluffy batter, the kind I remember jumbo shrimp being prepared in. The crab Rangoon were crispy wontons with a creamy crab mixture inside.

And the egg roll was above average, being crispy enough, but not hard or greasy, as some are.

The egg drop soup had scallions and corn in it, plus the bits of egg. It was velvety and just warm, not hot. I hate it when soup comes so hot that you can’t eat it until dessert.

Panda Garden’s extensive menu, for eating in or taking out, has lots of dishes that span the history of America’s Chinese restaurants. Some of those include moo shu chicken (with four pancakes), egg foo young, chow mein, lo mein and various kinds of fried rice.

The lunch special menu, served Monday through Saturday, lets you choose from more than 30 entrees that each come with a soup, appetizer of the day and vegetable fried rice. The prices range from $7.50 to $7.95.

Some of the lunch special entrees include chicken with cashews, moo goo gai pan, General Tso’s chicken, shredded beef Szechuan style, ginger shrimp, and pork with garlic sauce. You can also get lo mein, chow mein or fried rice as a lunch entree.

There are also several Revolution Diet options on the menu, served with no salt, sugar, cornstarch or MSG. These include shrimp Szechuan style, orange-flavored chicken and lemon-flavored chicken. There are about 30 dishes in the Chef’s Specialties section, including some with lamb and duck.

Based on how well Panda Garden does the basic Chinese restaurant appetizers, I may be tempted to try something different next time.

Or, I may just pooh-pooh that idea and stick with what I know I like.


PANDA GARDEN

WHERE: 1041 Brighton Ave., Portland; 874-6935
HOURS: 11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Thursday; 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday; noon to 9 p.m. Sunday
WAIT: About five minutes
PARKING: Yes
WHEELCHAIR ACCESS: Yes

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