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Four Creative Hacks at Panda Express Innovation Kitchen

Thinking outside the orange chicken.

Panda Express Innovation Kitchen, Pasadena
Panda Express Innovation Kitchen, Pasadena
Matthew Kang

If you haven't yet experienced Pasadena's flashy Panda Express Innovation Kitchen, well, why the hell not? It's everything you've ever wanted from a Panda Express, right down to the neon-orange chicken, but it's also so much more.

The Innovation Kitchen is a testing ground of sorts for Panda Express, a live-action space where new possible dishes and concepts from the quick service team can get their kinks worked out in front of a paying audience. It's also a physical space for said innovation, as the kitchen inside is much bigger and shinier than the ones you'll find at your corner Panda Express. This is where new ideas from America's most prolific Chinese fast casual chain come to be realized.

With the smell of possibility in the air, Eater stepped up to the challenge by creating five unique Panda Express mash-up dishes you probably haven't though of before. Forget the orange chicken burrito (using a scallion pancake wrap, naturally) — these are truly groundbreaking meals.

Kung Pao Chicken Quesadilla

Kung Pao Quesadilla

Elliott's take: So devilishly simple, you'll wish you thought of it yourself. Take one of those scallion pancake wraps, stuff a bunch of kung pao chicken inside and add a splash of sriracha to help it all bind, and you've got the makings of one hell of a quesadilla — all that's left is to ask the staff to press the thing a little bit to warm it all up and crisp the edges. Panda Express doesn't carry cheese, but with a side of their in-house sambal sauce for dipping you won't even miss it.

Kang's take: This is one of the best quesadillas I've ever had that didn't have cheese in it. While that doesn't really make sense, the soft scallion pancake "tortilla" had enough glutinous texture to bind the thing together. The thing was vastly improved with some extra dipping sauces, namely the spicy red and green, mixed. I could eat this every night after a few beers.

Hot & Sour Chow Mein Ramen

Elliott's take: The important thing to remember here is the ratio of soup to chow mein. What you really need is a full bowl of hot & sour soup and just a handful of chow mein (don't skip on the chicken). Add on some crispy wontons for a bit of textural contrast, then mix the whole thing up back at your table. Bam! A thicker, slightly odd-yet-satisfying bowl of hot & sour ramen.

Kang's take: This isn't really ramen but I don't really care. First off, the hot & sour soup is sort of on hiatus around the country because Panda Express isn't able to procure enough eggs for their vast operation. It could be up to two years (seriously) until they get eggs back in the fried rice and even have the hot & soup as an offering. Either way, we lucked out because the Innovation Kitchen (the crown jewel of the Panda Express empire) had some of the soup on hand. I'm actually a big fan of the soup: it's balanced with a nice spicy kick. Throwing in some chow mein noodles felt both weird and dirty, almost like I was a kid again trying to anger my parents by screwing up my dinner. I couldn't stop slurping these, though I ended up turning it into more of a tsukemen by dipping the chow mein noodles.

Thai-Style Crispy Walnut Shrimp Papaya Salad

Elliott's take: While you can't get all the way there, a near-enough version of the classic Thai papaya salad is possible at Panda Express Innovation Kitchen. Ask for a bowl of their papaya slaw only, and throw some pickles in for added crunch and vinegar. Toss on some chopped pieces of walnut shrimp and top with whatever crunch you can find — Panda phased out their crushed peanuts unfortunately, so crispy onions or wontons will have to do — for a worthy side salad that could eat like a meal.

Kang's take: You have to be judicious (and ask really nicely) if you want to get this, and be prepared to pay a little bit more. They prep the green papaya in the kitchen every day, and they generally only have enough for toppings, not a base of a whole dish. Typically you don't have hot elements in a papapa salad, but the shrimp just works here. While I was eating this, I almost felt like I was eating something healthy at Panda, before chomping on one of those awesome walnut shrimp pieces.

The Mixed Burrito You've Been Missing

Kang's take: OK, so you might've heard of the orange chicken burrito. It's great. BUT, I decided to change things up a little bit. First, a bit of rice and chow mein, not just chow mein. I also asked for a dose of each of their sauces to bind it together. I also threw in both orange chicken and beijing beef (essentially a beef version of orange chicken). The pliable scallion pancake that acts the burrito did a really fine job keeping the thing together. Sadly, they only allow you to get two different toppings in a "wrap", but with both the fried orange chicken and beijing beef in one scallion pancake, I was in burrito heaven.

Panda Burrito

Tea Bar Drinks

Elliott's take: The Innovation Kitchen also has a drinks bar, and it's arguably the most innovation-y part of the whole store. Mixes and matches between flavors and add-ins are practically endless, but there are some that work better than others. You should definitely add chia seeds to your next sparkling ginger lemonade, for one. And it's also worth noting that this Pasadena location is tinkering right now with some off-menu espresso options, making the experimental caramel milk freeze with boba and a shot of espresso one of the highlights of the day. There is also, in true Panda fashion, a really underrated fortune cookie shake.

Kang's take: I found the whipped drinks a little on the sweet side, but that fortune cookie shake is just awesome, especially for 3-5 large sips. The blueberry mojito (on the left) was something I couldn't stop drinking, though I did wish it had a dram or two of rum. That would be a great (but illegal) hack: bringing a flask of nice rum to throw into your blueberry mojito (please don't actually do this as the folks at Panda Express would not be very happy about booze in their stores). With about 27 different tea bar locations around the country, I could definitely see this concept taking off.

Panda Express Innovation Kitchen

3867 E Foothill Blvd, Pasadena, CA 91107 (626) 351-9128 Visit Website