Suburban adolescence breeds a kind of food appreciation that’s difficult to shake, the result of spending many formative mealtimes in the sparkly clutches of national chains.
You may know the feeling, which persists into adulthood despite what you consider a semi-refined palate and decent taste: real affection for California Pizza Kitchen; not nostalgia, necessarily, but some kind of strange reverence for the hours you spent pouring over the tome/menu at The Cheesecake Factory; an occasional craving — in the face of a myriad of (better) options — for strip mall fast food.
You can take the girl out of the TGIFriday’s but you can’t take the Friday’s out of the girl.
I like to humor my Suburban Hungry Kid flare-ups whenever they happen, and not just because irony is a snake person’s drug of choice. Bee-lining past hip foodie locales in favor of a Chili’s is less about the hilarity factor for me and more because it feels so right. When I need a jolt of hometown Friday night comfort in the form of a totally recognizable menu, and a taste that’s replicated nationwide, I can find it in this city. Almost every chain I’ve ever loved is represented here.
Something devastating about New York City is that you really can get everything your heart desires, except for Panda Express. I discovered this fact one horrible day last winter, standing in a blizzard, ferociously GoogleMapping the suburban Chinese take-out favorite. Orange chicken will lift my spirits, I thought hopefully. Orange chicken and dry socks.
As fate would have it, the closest P-Ex options to the Big Apple are in distant-seeming mall food courts, in Elmhurst, N.Y. to the east and Jersey City to the west, much too far for a cold night’s trek. (Rumor has it the chain plans to expand into the city limits, but at the time of this writing, The Panda Powers that Be are still sleeping on that plan.)
Nooooooo, I wailed, literally surrounded by seventeen other Brooklyn Chinese take-out options. Where will I ever get Chinese food again??!!!
I was a martyr that night, refusing to order anything in place of the stuff I really craved. If I couldn’t have the exact steaming Styrofoam clamshell of my dreams, I would have no steaming Styrofoam clamshell at all!!! I think I made an omelet.
The point: Some days, hundreds of miles away from an In-N-Out burger, you settle for a Five Guys and quit your complaining. But some days, you take matters into your own hands, look up a Special Sauce recipe online (mayo, ketchup, and pickle relish? who knew) and recreate a Double-Double in your own damn kitchen.
Today is the second kind of day, and today, we tackle Panda Express.
3 tablespoons soy sauce, divided
2 tablespoons white wine
2 teaspoons minced ginger
1 clove of garlic, minced
4 boneless, skinless chicken breasts, cut into 1 to 1 1/2-inch cubes
1/4 cup plus 1 tablespoon cornstarch (or potato starch), divided
Canola (or other neutral oil) oil, for frying
1 tablespoon honey
2/3 cup orange juice
1 tablespoon orange marmalade
1 tablespoon rice vinegar
1/4 teaspoon sesame oil
Photos by Linda Xiao and James Ransom