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posted: 6/5/2012 6:00 AM

Elgin's Little Panda offers casual take on Chinese

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  • Orange chicken comes with a side of broccoli at Little Panda.

       Orange chicken comes with a side of broccoli at Little Panda.
    Rick West | Staff Photographer

  • Little Panda restaurant is a new addition to the Randall Road corridor in Elgin.

       Little Panda restaurant is a new addition to the Randall Road corridor in Elgin.
    Rick West | Staff Photographer

  • Hong Kong Steak comes in a white wine sauce at Little Panda.

       Hong Kong Steak comes in a white wine sauce at Little Panda.
    Rick West | Staff Photographer

  • Crispy shrimp rolls are a popular appetizer at Little Panda in Elgin.

       Crispy shrimp rolls are a popular appetizer at Little Panda in Elgin.
    Rick West | Staff Photographer

  • The Thai cashew chicken at Little Panda is a nice dish for diners who don't mind a little heat.

       The Thai cashew chicken at Little Panda is a nice dish for diners who don't mind a little heat.
    Rick West | Staff Photographer

  • Crab rangoon is just one starter at Elgin's Little Panda.

       Crab rangoon is just one starter at Elgin's Little Panda.
    Rick West | Staff Photographer

 
By Carolyn Walkup
Daily Herald Correspondent

An independently owned fast-casual newcomer to the South Randall Road strip-mall restaurant mecca, Little Panda is a bargain-priced delight to fans of good Chinese food.

The modern appearance of this tiny storefront gives no hint of such Chinese decor clichés as paper lanterns, oodles of China Red paint or murals depicting ancient Chinese dynasties. Instead, the simple but tasteful interior sports a contemporary flair, lime green and neutral color palate and light wood chairs and tables. There are only 20 seats, hinting of the restaurant's primarily takeout business, but those who eat in enjoy the subdued atmosphere.

Open since last February by Kai Cheung, who formerly ran several Chinese restaurants in Connecticut, Little Panda (no relation to Panda Express) has an extensive menu of Chinese dishes from the major culinary regions of China, as well as several dishes of Thai descent and a couple from Korea. Both meat lovers and vegetarians will be happy with the variety.

The cooks use no MSG and prepare all vegetables fresh daily, Cheung said. "We try to use the best grades of meat we can," he added.

First-time visitors need some time to peruse the lengthy menu board. Permanent specials that represent Little Panda's version of combo meals are listed on two separate specials menu boards at the front of the counter.

Many of the special entrees are duplicates of the a la carte menu, except that some include fried rice for a fixed price and others include an egg roll and a beverage for an extra $1, resulting in slight discounts.

With so many items listed, there is no room for detailed descriptions, so customers who are unsure of what to order need to ask questions of the lone front-of-the-house employee, who does everything except cook. She brings food to the tables for those eating in, as my friend and I did, in actual washable tableware rather than disposable containers. We did have to ask for chopsticks.

The tasty deep-fried egg roll contained a generous amount of pork, along with cabbage. It came with an oddly colored red sweet-and-sour sauce -- emphasis on sweet. We added a partial packet of hot mustard to tone down the sweetness.

We also ordered two a la carte appetizers: hot and sour soup and pot stickers. The soup was well-balanced, with the right amount of vinegar and a nice serving of vegetables and tofu. It also came with a little bowl of fried won ton strips.

We liked the pork-stuffed pot stickers, too, which were steamed and then pan-fried on one side. The well-seasoned meatball-shaped pork was flavorful and barely needed the soy sauce-based dipping sauce.

Our entrees came out before we had finished the pot stickers, but that was a minor flaw, considering the casual nature of the restaurant.

The Thai cashew chicken stir-fry is a good choice for those who enjoy spicy cuisine. It was prepared moderately hot, usually indicated on the printed menu by one red pepper. The menu board does not designate spiciness, so it's a good idea to tell the server what spice level you prefer before ordering.

Good-sized chunks of chicken were accompanied by green and yellow bell pepper and mild onion pieces. It could have used more vegetables, but the golden fried rice did a good job of absorbing the heat.

The mild Hong Kong steak dish included more vegetables -- broccoli and pea pods -- along with a Chinese white wine sauce. Although somewhat bland, the crisp vegetables complemented the meat nicely.

Other menu categories that will have to wait till another visit were noodles, roasted pork, shrimp, chop suey/chow mein, egg foo young, vegetable entrees and diet steamer, the last a list of seven items that are steamed rather than stir-fried in oil and lower in calories, fat and sodium.

The only dessert on the menu thus far is almond cookies, four to a package, which we did not try. Our server brought us fortune cookies to end our meal. I've never gotten a bad fortune at a Chinese restaurant, and this was no exception: "You will always have good luck in your personal affairs."

I wish Little Panda's owners the same good luck with the restaurant, since the food and value are worthy of repeat customers.

Restaurant reviews are based on one anonymous visit. The Daily Herald does not review restaurants that it cannot recommend.

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