Chinese in East

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    In practically every neighborhood in Orlando, you'll find a Chinese restaurant feeding residents' pangs for kung pao chicken, pork-fried rice or beef lo mein. Such restaurants garner little to no fanfare; like fast-food joints, they occupy the lower rungs of gastronomic options. So when Panda Bistro opened its doors on the Colonial'Alafaya corridor, it seemed like no big deal. But then I realized the appealing eatery is the brainchild of Maggie Lee, proprietress of Winter Park's Tatáme. I've always liked Lee's tea-and-sake house, but wouldn't go there if I were craving a meal to accompany my lychee-infused sake. So naturally, I was stoked at the prospect of dining at a Maggie Lee'branded restaurant. At first blush, it was pretty much as expected, with original art by Lee and other local artists setting it apart from other strip-mall noodle houses.

    A couple of fresh faces stood behind the counter juggling takeout and dine-in orders, while an older chap who appeared quite deft at handling a wok anchored kitchen responsibilities. Given the sheer number of items available (close to 150 on the menu), he probably has one of the thickest, strongest wrists in Orlando.

    A picture menu will hold your attention while you hold up the line forming behind you, so it's best to grab a bill of fare, peruse an assortment more varied than characters in the Chinese alphabet while you're waiting, and then order. A majority of the patrons here are students, and Panda Bistro seems to straddle the line between catering to undergrads with unsophisticated palates and ministering to neo-hipsters who fancy themselves connoisseurs. As at Tatáme, that's Lee's target demo ' and they're literally eating it up.

    The pair behind the counter seemed so inundated with carry-out orders that it was a while before our order was taken. All was forgotten when the egg drop soup ($2.95) arrived, its clear yellow broth, suspending silken strands of golden yolk, making a comforting start to the meal. Edamame ($3.95) appeared to be overcooked, but the soybeans remained full and plump. Mains, as you can imagine, run the gamut. We opted for the Hunan Double ($9.95), an altogether ordinary stir-fry of beef, chicken and the requisite vegetables in a thick, broccoli-heavy sauce. The dish lacked that seasoned-wok essence that separates a good stir-fry from a great one (like Tasty Wok's); if you want it spicy, better ask for some sriracha and chili oil. Pan-fried noodles ($9.95) came served with a lighter sauce that was a little more flavorful than the Hunan, but it was the perfectly crisp egg noodles that made this dish worth ordering again. I'm not sure I'd order the boneless Peking duck ($13.95 half; $23.95 whole) again. The shiny slabs of dark meat looked nice sitting on a bed of scallions, accompanied by mu shu pancakes and hoisin sauce. But the duck was a bit too greasy and the sauce a tad too gluey for our liking.

    When diners are presented with scores of options, the fare is bound to be hit-or-miss. A more focused menu would certainly help, but when you sustain a student body with diverse backgrounds and tastes, variety can take precedence over a concentrated approach. And Lee is the key. She knows her audience, and as ambitious, creative and determined a gal as she is (she often delivers food herself), Lee's sure to make Panda Bistro a success ' even if she has to grin and bear it.

    In many ways, Pu Yi is like dozens of other Chinese restaurants around town. Located in a plain shopping plaza down the street from UCF, it offers good food, modest prices and fast service. It's a typical neighborhood eatery, with one exception: Pu Yi does excellent soups. At similar establishments, I've often been disappointed by anemic won ton, and I've been downright offended by putrid versions of egg drop. Never at Pu Yi.

    On a recent lunch excursion, the won ton was a winner: The broth was light and clear, yet packed with flavor. Delicately spicy pork was folded into two firm Chinese noodles. Floating on top were chopped scallions that tasted as fresh and green as they looked. My order of egg drop soup was noteworthy as well. The broth was thick and glossy, a bright golden color, dotted with slivers of egg whites. It was rich, not the least bit clingy or heavy.

    We had barely finished the soups when the entrees arrived, fairly sizzling. Szechuan chicken ($4.65) was prepared to a medium spicy taste as requested. Braised sheets of chicken were served in brown gravy, brightened with stir-fried carrots, sprouts, bell peppers, bamboo shoots, baby corn, snow peas and broccoli.

    We also had sweet and sour chicken ($4.15). The texture and flavor were about even. Chicken tenders were battered and fried to a crisp finish, with minimal greasiness. The sweet and sour sauce was sweet but not cloying, and it tasted unexpectedly fruity. On the side, fried rice was light and tasty, tossed with peas and carrots. Egg rolls were dainty and crisp, having been fried in an extra-thin wrapping of dough. Inside they were moist, stuffed with shredded cabbage, sprouts and spinach.

    As for our dessert, we thought the almond cookies could have been a little more fresh. Still, they were nicely crumbly and sweet with sliced almonds on top. Service has been consistently good whenever I've visited. Waiters are diligent about bringing orders quickly and overcoming the language barrier.

    The dinner menu looks more varied with interesting selections such as lobster sizzling wok bar ($11.95), shelled lobster with Chinese vegetables served over crispy rice patties. But lunch is more affordable: Try a quart of the shrimp fried rice, so packed with fresh shrimp, it's practically a steal at $5.95.



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