Panda Express just added another American Chinese classic to the menu, revealing exactly what people get wrong about the chain.
On Wednesday, the chain announced it was adding General Tso’s chicken to the menu for the first time.
General Tso’s is an intrinsically American dish with Chinese roots, which became famous after being introduced to New York City menus by chef Peng Chang-kuei in the 1970s. Now, it’s not only one of the best-known dishes on American Chinese restaurants’ menus, but also one of the most popular dishes in the US across all cuisines, Panda Express CMO Andrea Cherng told Business Insider. It’s also a dish derided by many as inauthentic, found only in the US and therefore not “true” Chinese food.
All these things — its American-Chinese roots, popularity, and even perceived inauthenticity — make General Tso’s chicken the perfect embodiment of the ethos of Panda Express.
“General Tso has this beautiful story that’s very similar to the Panda story,” says Cherng, whose parents are founders and co-CEOS of the chain. “It’s a story of immigrant Chinese chefs and families coming to the US, for what they hope will be a better life. It’s a story of taking the recipes and the repertoire of their own culinary skill set and making it appeal to an [American] national palate.”
Panda Express is often criticised and mocked, with everyone from BuzzFeed to chef David Chang taking shots at the chain for perceived mediocrity and inauthenticity. What critics fail to understand is that Panda Express isn’t trying to serve food you would find on the menu in China — it’s trying to define an entirely different category of American Chinese food.
Andrew Cherng and his father, Master Chef Ming-Tsai Cherng, opened the first Panda Inn in Pasadena, California in 1973. At the time, Chinese food in America was still an exoticized curiosity is much of the country.
Today, Andrew and Peggy Cherng are co-CEOs of the chain, which has roughly 1,900 location worldwide, the vast majority of which are in the US. With the chain’s vast growth, Andrea Cherng says that Panda Express sees itself as an ambassador for Chinese food in American culture.
“We are the largest Chinese restaurant concept in the US. So our reach, in terms of the US audience, gives us a great deal of responsibility that we take very seriously,” says Cherng. “For many guests, they come to us because they trust us… We were their first taste of Chinese cuisine.”
After introducing Americans to Chinese food, Panda Express is now dealing with a new problem. Increasingly, customers crave more adventurous and “authentic” options. The chain that was customers’ gateway for Chinese food can’t just be an entry point, but instead needs to keep up with a changing culture.
It’s a frustrating paradox — Panda Express helped Chinese food become a part of the mainstream American diet, only to be dismissed as inauthentic for these efforts.
“We are owned, we are run, we are lead by a Chinese family,” Cherng says of criticisms of inauthenticity. “When I talk to [Panda Express’] chef Andy [Kao], I’m always asking him, Chef Andy, on a guttural level, does this taste like Chinese food to you?”
However, the chain doesn’t block out the voices of its harshest critics.
Cherng says that Panda Express is dedicated to actively listening to and engaging with customer response, both good and bad. Her background as an attorney, prior to becoming CMO, taught her the importance of acknowledging a counter-argument to make a stronger case. Then, there’s the personal component:
“There is an element that I believe, at least of my upbringing as an American-born-Chinese, is how parents love is through criticism,” says Cherng. “I think many of us are very used to the idea of always using criticism to get better. And, I think that is what we’re doing at Panda — always using criticism, whether or not it is communicated out of love for us, to get better.”
So, while Cherng says critics of Panda Express’ food quality or unhealthiness ignore much of the menu, the chain is addressing them anyway.
The company is rolling out new dishes that are healthier, such as Pacific Chilli Shrimp. The Innovation Kitchen in Pasadena, California serves as a test market for items that combine culinary creativity and Chinese inspiration, such as scallion pancake wraps and green papaya slaw. And, Cherng says that chefs are being increasingly encouraged to push the limits of their creativity, and draw from their personal Chinese culinary experience, looking to regional specialities and their childhood comfort foods for inspiration.
Still, as the introduction of the General Tso’s chicken shows, the chain’s isn’t trying to ditch its American Chinese image.
“Something that we often talk about in our company is how do we build on the foundation of who we are,” says Cherng. “I think that that spirit of always honouring the past and the work that has been done the past, but always looking toward the future… is really the drive right now.
Panda Express is never going to be an authentic Chinese restaurant. Instead, it’s a proud, authentic American Chinese restaurant — and it doesn’t want to be anything else.
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