January 20, 2021

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Cooking is a hobby

The Past, Present, and Future of D.C.’s Panda Gourmet

When Panda Gourmet opened in December 2012, it followed several other restaurants that occupied the Days Inn at 2700 New York Ave. NE. The motel, once described as having “a Tom Waits, ‘Jockey Full of Bourbon’ vibe,” housed Chinese laborers building the Chinese Embassy from 2006 to 2008 and until recently, families experiencing homelessness.  

Before Panda Gourmet came Joe’s Noodle House, Sammy’s Restaurant Steak & Buffet, and other restaurants serving Chinese or Asian food that shuttered in succession. After the closure of a Vietnamese pho place, Sammy Xie, who manages the Days Inn and hails from China’s Fujian province, turned to his friend Joseph Huang to gauge his interest in opening a restaurant. The pitch, according to Panda Gourmet’s manager Mei Lai, was that having a restaurant as part of the motel, rather than leaving the space vacant, would be better for business. There would be a proper place for a meal on site.

In the early part of the last decade, many people traveled from China to D.C. or ventured from the U.S. to China because, according to Lai, “relations were good between the two countries.” There was a fresh population—students, researchers, travelers, and others—who had experienced Chinese food in China, she notes. 

Huang’s thought was to bring food—the “Rouga Mo” Chinese burger (roujiamo) and cold steamed noodles (liangpi)—from his home province of Shaanxi to D.C. as comfort food for some and adventurous eating for others. He added Sichuan food, Lai says, because both “Americans and Chinese like eating spicy food” and because if he only served Shaanxi food, “not a lot of people would understand it.” Lai explains that D.C. had around 20 or 30 Chinese restaurants at the time, not to mention the chain Panda Express, but none served food quite like what Panda Gourmet was cooking.

Huang would import ingredients directly from China through a supplier in New York because he wanted the food to taste like it would in China. Using the example of roujiamo, Lai says it takes about 200 ingredients to make the dish. “And then you have to put the meat into a pot and cook it for several days in order for it to taste good,” she says. Panda Gourmet’s other manager, Xu Xiaolong, was originally based in Shaanxi and also sourced ingredients for dishes like liangpi from the region. 

Lai explains that local diners started sampling the more traditional dishes after peering at the plates in front of Chinese students from the University of Maryland and Georgetown University. Diners would ask questions and change their orders on subsequent visits. Other customers had traveled to China, including parts of Shaanxi or Sichuan, and came back craving the food they tasted abroad.