Good Asian restaurants are in short supply in Western MA, so when the Chinese food cravings hit me on Boxing Day, I headed back out to Panda Garden. I had a couple of really good dishes at my last visit (my prior review is here) but I am learning that Panda Garden’s kitchen is really inconsistent, eating there is like playing Chinese meal roulette. Their vegan moo shu pork and kung po chicken are excellent, but they have also served me an abysmal, inedible Singapore Chow Mai Fun.
This time around I tried the salt baked shrimp, which are on their “Gourmet Menu” which we were not given a copy of on our prior visit. The shrimp were fantastic, this is the only place in Western MA where I have been able to find traditional head-on, shell-on salt baked shrimp. The delight in eating the shrimp did not continue on with their Xiao Long Bao, which were overcooked to the extreme. The dumpling wrappers had all ruptured during steaming and then further fell apart in the steamer at slightest touch of my chopsticks. Trying to eat them just yielded a steamer full of torn wrappers and six pork meatballs.
I sent the soup dumplings back and got the Wontons in Red Oil instead (on the Gourmet Menu) and this time I won the roulette wheel spin. This dish is basically the same as the Wontons in Hot Sesame Sauce, except the sauce is spicier and not sesame based. Their version of the sauce is quite different from the Red Oil I have had elsewhere, which is often literally a red chili oil. This sauce was a medium thick brown sauce, with some red chili oil, but also with a sediment or paste component that had an delicious umami funk to it. Neither the waiter nor the host knew what was in the sauce and seemed reluctant to ask the chef, but I think it was a fermented bean of some kind. I really enjoyed these wontons and recommend them over the wontons in sesame sauce from their regular menu.
If you go to Panda Gourmet, good luck on the roulette wheel and make sure you ask for the Gourmet Menu.