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.
Panda Gourmet is now a D.C. landmark and appears in a scene in George Pelecanos’ latest novel, The Man Who Came Uptown, but its first three years were challenging. Lai says it was tough to get the word out. She joined the staff in August 2015 and even then, business was slow. She credits reviews from the Post and word-of-mouth for finally drawing diners to a part of town not known for its restaurant scene.
Another strategy was adding Americanized Chinese dishes to the menu to appeal to a broader audience. Lai says these dishes, like General Tso’s chicken, account for about 20 percent of orders. Sometimes patrons come in for such items only to be drawn in by pictures of other options like liangpi. “Sometimes they begin to only order from the ‘authentic’ menu,” Lai says with a laugh.
Nowadays, Panda Gourmet is grateful for its customers. When the pandemic first hit D.C. last March, the restaurant’s operations were limited to takeout. “Many customers called to see if we were still open [at all],” Lai relays. Some area Chinese restaurants closed altogether, even though they’re adept at takeout. The support has been heartwarming, Lai says, adding that delivery drivers also thanked them for being open so they could have a source of income.
Panda Gourmet felt the impact of the pandemic the most in the first month, Lai says, noting that sales dropped by around 50 percent because they no longer had a dine-in option and because COVID-19 was new enough that people were nervous about ordering takeout. That initial trepidation eroded as it became more clear that the virus isn’t transmitted through food handling and consumption.
More customers were willing to place to-go orders, though revenue remains below pre-pandemic levels. At the same time, Lai explains, business is at a point where Panda Gourmet has a good chance to survive. She hopes to reopen the restaurant for dine-in service once it’s safe and people have been vaccinated.
Panda Gourmet credits third-party delivery services like Uber Eats and Hungry Panda with helping them stay afloat. They appear on seven or eight delivery apps and have used technology solutions that bundle delivery services into one platform to allow for easier processing of orders.
In 2017, Panda Gourmet decided to partner with Uber Eats based on the suggestion of a representative from the Mayor’s Office of Asian and Pacific Island Affairs who liked their food. Huang thought working with Uber Eats would be a good move for the future, even though the 30 percent commission fee Uber Eats charged at the time was steep.
The strategy proved prescient in 2020. Because Panda started to use Uber Eats several years ago, they were prepared when an influx of orders streamed in early on in the pandemic.
While delivery services have been helpful, Panda Gourmet has been looking for a second location—likely near downtown or Georgetown—that would offer only take-out. This “ghost restaurant” would allow Huang to reach customers who fall outside of their current delivery range. An outpost would also allow Panda Gourmet to recoup a portion of their pandemic-related losses and expenses, including rent on an idle space that increased by 3 percent last year.
Panda Gourmet may be Huang’s first restaurant, but as Lai observes, Huang “is from Shaanxi, and has ideas.”
And in case you were curious, the characters in Pelecanos’ novel ordered scallion pancakes, roujiamo, cumin lamb on sticks, spicy vermicelli, and dumplings with hot sauce. “The food was righteous,” Pelecanos concludes.
Note: City Paper conducted interviews in Mandarin and translated the responses for publication.