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Enter the Panda: American Chinese chain opens eatery on E. 14th Street

BY LINCOLN ANDERSON | After more than a year of its storefront being ready for business yet sitting empty, the new Panda Express in the East Village finally opened last month.

As part of the festivities, the first eight customers waiting on line on the morning of July 20 won what was billed as “a year’s supply” of free meals. In reality, it will be one free meal every other week. Still — it’s free food.

In addition, the first 88 customers got Panda Express gift cards and T-shirts.

Natali Evertz, right, and Kevin Lam were the first two people in line. (Photo by The Village Sun)
A group of Facebook friends dominated the top eight spots, including from right, Jenny Wong, Patricia Velasquez, Ray Lopez, Jessica Avila and Wendy D. Some had foldable chairs they used for the overnight wait. (Photo by The Village Sun)

Eight, or ba, is the luckiest number in Chinese culture because it sounds like fa, meaning prosperous in business.

The chain brands its fare as uniquely “American Chinese.” Its top seller is its Original Orange Chicken®.

The first person waiting on line when the door opened at 10 a.m. at the corner of 14th Street and First Avenue was Natali Evertz, 31, from the Bronx. A former health aide and current reseller, she had been there since 7:30 p.m. the previous day. She became familiar with the brand from one of its stores that opened in the Bronx.

“I love their walnut shrimp and beef with broccoli,” she said, adding, “Oh, I can’t forget — the teriyaki chicken.”

The sign of the Panda. (Photo by The Village Sun)
The first eight on line got their swag. (Photo by The Village Sun)
(Photo by The Village Sun)

Evertz is part of a Facebook friends group who attend pop-ups for beauty products, ice cream and the like and movie premieres together — and they were all waiting in line right behind her. Three of them — Jessica Avila, Ray Lopez and Patricia Velasquez — live nearby in the East Village and Lower East Side. Something else they all share in common: They love Panda Express.

“I’m so excited,” Velasquez said, sporting a pink “Barbie” shirt and cap. She added that, previously, the chain had no restaurants near them.

“I’m tired of McDonald’s,” Avila said, with relief. She was happy to finally enter the store, having waited since 2 a.m. Luckily, she had a fold-up chair for the overnight.

Avila said she ranks Panda Express over other local Chinese restaurants partly because of their better takeout containers.

A “chork,” a Panda Express innovation. (Photo by The Village Sun)
The lucky eight. (Photo by The Village Sun)
The first 88 customers on July 20 got free T-shirts. (Photo by The Village Sun)

Also part of their group, Jenny Wong said she got to know the brand from its outlet at the Newport Mall, in Jersey City, where she worked.

The winning first eight customers can use their free meals at any of the 2,400 Panda Expresses.

“I’ll be going to the one Uptown at Columbia,” Wong noted.

Also at the fete was another key group for any restaurant opening nowadays — influencers. They included The Queen Foodie (Nina Berezin), stephtravels-NYC (who goes by Steph) and Sharm Sil, editor in chief of Average Socialite.

“I love Panda Express,” one of them said. “My mom’s probably more excited than me.”

Another praised the chain’s plant-based menu, noting, “I’m vegetarian. It really tastes like real chicken.”

Influencers snapped photos of the food to post on their social-media pages. (Photo by The Village Sun)
From left, influencers Nina Berezin (The Queen Foodie) and Sharm Sil (Average Socialite) with store manager Matine Ouro Kefia, Panda area operations coach Nikki Yang and influencer Steph (stephtravels-nyc). (Photo by The Village Sun)

The celebration culminated with an energetic lion dance to pounding drums outside the store. One of the dancers used a hand fan to sweep “good energy” out into the community. Toward the end, the lions spit heads of lettuce into the air, followed by oranges. Lettuce represents liveliness and business prosperity, while oranges symbolize good luck.

Also on hand was Nikki Yang, Panda Express area coach of operations. Growing up in Oregon, she started eating the brand’s food in high school, eventually scoring a job with the chain. She moved to New York after her husband was accepted into Columbia’s master’s program for construction.

Yang was sympathetic to this reporter’s story of being mercilessly “dragged” on Twitter, now known as X, last year after posting a very brief article — really what’s known as “a blurb” — on the state of the down-and-out corner (at that time) outside the Panda store. However, the article struck a group of snarky Panda fans on Twitter — most of whom probably don’t even live in New York or are not originally from here — as ripe for mockery since it admittedly showed a lack of familiarity with the chain. Please — let’s not forget that the Big Apple has more than 2,400 mom-and-pop Chinese restaurants to choose from. Yet, unable to resist the “viral” tweet, a reporter then felt compelled to do an article on it, further amplifying the ridiculousness.

Yang, though, said she totally gets it if a non-mall-going native Manhattanite never heard about the chain.

“It’s understandable,” she said. “We started on the West Coast as Panda Inc. — 1983 was when we had our first Panda Express in a mall. We’re slowly, slowly expanding in New York — 2015 was our first store in New York.”

“New Yorkers are getting used to the brand now,” she said. “Hopefully, the goal is that everybody knows about Panda Express.”

Although Panda’s Original Orange Chicken® is its most popular dish, it is fried. Asked if there are healthier options, a Panda spokesperson responded: “The Original Orange Chicken® is our most beloved American Chinese comfort dish but we do offer lighter menu options, like our iconic Kung Pao Chicken, Broccoli Beef, Black Pepper Angus Steak and Super Greens. Over half of our delicious entrée offerings are WokSmart™ dishes, have at least 8 grams of protein and are 300 calories or less; so you never have to choose between food with flavor and food that fits your lifestyle.”

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