I used to think that Claremont had no good Chinese food. For me, that
was a simple fact of life at Pomona. I would have a good cry about it every
once in a while, but I survived. Surviving generally involved driving to San
Gabriel or Rowland Heights, which both offer some of the best Chinese on our
side of world. But last week, I was let
in on a secret, and I love secrets. This particular secret is a menu taped to a
corner at Royal Panda, one of the most unassuming little food holes in
Royal Panda looks exactly like the kind of place into which you don’t really want to go. It has the standard Americanized Chinese
buffet and is usually empty. Behind this façade, however, is a pretty good
Taiwanese chef. In fact, he is the “best chef in the world,” according to a
certificate taped to the wall. He won’t cook for you, though, unless you
specifically ask for the “secret menu.” It is hidden in the corner of the restaurant
in Mandarin characters. When you point at it, the owner will hand you a
translation of the menu.
Don’t get too excited. The food is not
particularly awesome. It is just reasonably good. But Royal Panda has a few significant
things going for it. One, it’s excellent Chinese for Claremont standards, if
not Yunnan standards. Two, it is an easy walk from South Campus. And three—perhaps best of all—they deliver. For around five bucks, you will get a solid
noodle soup dropped off in front of Blaisdell.
The menu’s translation is fairly rough, so if
you can, go with someone who speaks Mandarin. I’m still in the process of
asking the chef to cook various things. From what I can tell, he will cook
anything he knows how to make if he has the ingredients. Our last conversation
involved cooking dan dan mian, which
is maybe my favorite bowl of noodles (the best I’ve found in L.A. is probably
at 101 Noodle Express in Alhambra). He said he’d give it a try on another day.
I convinced him to make the Taiwanese version of
ma po tofu, a typical Sichuan dish
that can numb your mouth with spice if done right. This version has no ma (Sichuan peppercorns), though, so it
will just leave you smelling like garlic and glory. If you’re a vegetarian
it’s a good dish, but make sure to tell them not to throw in minced pork. Ma po tofu is also ridiculously
difficult to eat with chopsticks. The soft tofu falls apart fairly easily, so it’s
a nice test to evaluate your chopstick finesse.
Equally good is the “spicy” beef stew (it’s not
particularly spicy, but it has more flavor than the clear broth stew). The
noodles are the dry kind found at a typical Asian supermarket, which prevents
the soup from being awesome, but the broth is great. Pho Ha, a Vietnamese spot
down Indian Hill, probably has the best beef stew in Claremont, but Royal Panda
produces a close second.
Also try the garlic eggplant, which isn’t on the
menu. They are willing to cook a few different types of eggplant, so emphasize
that you want the Sichuan, spicy kind. Again, Mandarin is useful here.
The other dishes I tried were just okay, but
worth getting every once in a while. The “beef with egg and rice” is the
Taiwanese version of an omelet, and is pretty tasty. The egg drop soup is the
same you will find at any Chinese restaurant in America, but it will warm you up.
The Zha Jiang Mian is a big plate of
noodles, if you prefer dry noodles to noodle soup. Avoid the “Three Flavoured
Noodles,” which are a little too simple for me. They also offer a “Chinese
Burrito,” which, although nowhere near any sort of real Taiwanese dish, has the
potential to be a guilty pleasure.
Royal Panda is not the best Chinese in SoCal, but
it is the best in Claremont. It is cheap. It at least attempts to be authentic.
And it delivers.
Royal Panda. 352 S. Indian Hill Blvd. (909) 621-1855. Mon-Sat 11 a.m. – 9 p.m. Sun 12 p.m. – 8 p.m.