925 Behrman Hwy # 1
Gretna, LA 70056
Napoleon's Rating - ***/*****
Panda King is like a tale of two restaurants under one roof. From the street, the place looks very much like any other large Asian buffet, and that is in fact its main line of business. Every night, hordes of people turn up for the all-you-can-eat spread of dull Americanized Chinese food, lackluster sushi and good Louisiana boiled seafood. But that's only half the story. A second dining room serves as a dim sum tearoom. During weekend brunch hours (10:30 a.m. to 3 p.m.), waitresses wheel carts from table to table offering traditional Chinese brunch fare of savory buns, soups, small portions of noodles and vegetables and, most of all, an array of dumplings. These are primarily two-bite tastes of dishes, and for those with a little sense of adventure they can make an excellent and exciting meal. Note that the three star-rating refers to this dim sum service, while the buffet would not merit a star rating.
Panda King is part of a strip mall that happens to be a thriving hub of Asian food. A few doors down there's Hong Kong Market, the great, huge Asian grocery, while a Vietnamese noodle shop, full-service restaurant and tea shop are each located in the same development or just next door. The main part of the restaurant, the buffet, is like any other dining hall or cafeteria. The dim sum dining room next door, however, is much nicer, with a more coherent décor and tables set with white cloths.
Again, this is a tale of two restaurants. The buffet is of course self-service and you rarely see a server except to order drinks and request the bill. On the dim sum side, dishes are dispatched by a troupe of women pushing metal carts, not unlike airline beverage carts. They perpetually make the rounds of the room, offering this and that item. Waiters take care of drinks and whatever else you need and they are generally pretty helpful in explaining the process and what dishes to look for on the touring carts.
If you eaten at an Asian buffet around these parts before, you already know the drill at Panda King. You'll find lots of fried bits of chicken with various sweet sauces, lots of greasy fried rice, plus a good bit of seafood. You can put together a decent mean of dumplings and boiled shrimp, but you have to be selective to avoid the cheap filler. The other side of the shop, during weekend dim sum hours, is when this place gets interesting. Part of the fun of eating in this style is that you never know just what the next dim sum cart will bear. Certainly, you'll see various dumplings and shumai along the way, filled with pork and ginger meatballs or shrimp in sweet sauce. There will be turnip cakes studded with bits of pork and small plates of stir-fried egg noodles. Steamed cai lan, or Chinese broccoli, adds some fresh green to the feast. Various buns and rolls hold marinated chicken or duck, minced shrimp or vegetables. I never could bring myself to sample the pig blood soup, but maybe others will have more courage.
The buffet has plenty of cake, cookies and Jello. Many of the dim sum items would qualify as dessert, especially the pastries with sweet fillings and big slices of custard.
There is a full bar, and in the dim sum room you can order a variety of Chinese teas.
The buffet is obviously set up as a bargain proposal. Dim sum can be more expensive but it is a better value overall based on the quality and interesting nature of the food. Most individual dim sum orders are between $3 and $6 and you should expect to order three or four of them per person to constitute a meal. Sharing is of course the way to go here.
Use Panda King as a buffet and it's a passable, quick, cheap place to fill up. But show up for the dim sum service and you can assemble a traditional Chinese meal you won't soon forget. Though the format of choosing prepared plates from circulating carts isn't familiar to most locals, it proves a fun approach and the food, once you start getting right down to it, isn't all that exotic. Plan a visit with a tableful of friends and family and start exploring.