For some, eating at a fast food restaurant like Panda Express isn’t the same as having a sit-down meal at a destination Chinese restaurant, but for me, I’m partial to a restaurant where the entire cooking process is done within eyesight, which is the way its done at the Burley Panda Express located on Alfresco Road, across from Walmart.

Ambiance: This location was certainly a cookie cutter layout that all Panda Express stores must follow, but if it’s done well, and it was, why do I care? For a big room where patrons eat and the food is prepared and displayed, it was remarkably calm. On our visit the sound system was playing contemporary music which had nothing in common with the Chinese theme of the food, but who cares? I would much rather listen to music I like than having someone at corporate headquarters pipe in high-pitched Chinese theme music.

Seating: There is a combination of booths and tables with chairs. I think the booth we sat in had the most leg and belly room of any restaurant we have reviewed these past ten months. There isn’t any padding, but this is surely by design. Most fast food business rely on people cycling through and the best way to see that happen is to ensure that the seating loses its appeal after ten or fifteen minutes, encouraging patrons to move on. Hard surfaces also make it easier to keep tables and chairs clean.

Noise: Its location on Alfresco road sees thousands of vehicles driving by each day and could pose a problem if it weren’t for the design of the building. You see the cars go by but there is hardly a sound that would be a nuisance to anyone eating their lunch. As mentioned above, there isn’t a lot of noise coming from the kitchen, so you’ll have an easy time eavesdropping on your neighbors sitting in the next booth.

Bathrooms: New buildings should be a guarantee of spick and span bathrooms, but someone needs to make sure they are clean. Panda Express bathrooms are well cared for and were clean. There are separate men’s and women’s facilities and they have a seating capacity of just one. This gives you lots of privacy so long as someone isn’t on the other side of the door rushing you along because he is having an emergency.

Service: Not much to report on service. As the patron you do all the lifting. There isn’t any service to speak of once you are handed your tray. Soft drinks are self-serve which allows for all the refills you desire.

Food: Here’s where things get good. I have had at least five meals from this Panda Express and every one of them has resulted in great food. I would not recommend using the drive-up window for one simple reason. You are at their mercy when it comes to the portion you are served. Sometimes the food on display is down to its last one or two servings and that’s the last portion I want to see go on my plate. If I’m inside placing my order I can skip a dish that’s on its last legs, favoring something I can see has recently come out of the kitchen.

One operational item that I have never seen outside of Panda Express is seeing the staff check the temperatures on the serving line. The longer an item sits in the steam table or serving pot the more it loses its quality. As a consumer we are at the restaurants mercy when it comes to having them remove items from a buffet or serving bowl. Panda Express does check food temperatures regularly.

If the serving bowl is down to its last portion you can ask the server if they will stir up a new batch, and most times they will do just that. I call that excellent customer service.

As far as the dishes go, I swear by the Mushroom Chicken. Today I added Black Pepper Chicken and fried rice. Cheryl had Honey Sesame Chicken and Green Bean Chicken, also with fried rice. YUM.

Value: Our meal came to $18 and the amount of food we were served was generous. A choice of two main dishes and one side dish will cost you just under $8, and for just $1.75 more you can add a third dish. My soft drink accounts for $2 of the $18. It is possible to order just one entre should you not be as hungry, but I believe the two or three side orders to be the best value.

There are those who will say that Panda Express isn’t real Chinese cuisine. To them you have to go to a back alley Chinese restaurant to have it be legitimate. To them I say, “Be my guest,” it just makes more room for me at the Panda Express table.

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