Panda Café celebrated its grand opening, Nov. 19, at 7600 Madison St., replacing Big Boss, which temporarily changed its name to Nichi before closing entirely.
New owner John Zhou has taken over. It’s the first restaurant Zhou has owned, though he has extensive kitchen experience.
The face of the restaurant, however, is the vibrant and friendly Simon Wu, manager and head chef. Longtime friends with Zhou, he was invited to help with the opening and establishment of the Forest Park restaurant.
Wu, who has over 20 years working professionally in kitchens, is passionate about cooking.
“If you are a cook, you have to care,” said Wu. He runs an online group where he gives recipe and cooking advice, and one of his greatest joys is teaching people how to prepare dishes. He regularly travels to China to discover new recipes and learn how to cook them.
“One of the most important things about being a chef is knowing that if you yourself wouldn’t eat it, you shouldn’t serve it,” said Wu. “When I learn to make a dish, I make it again and again until it is perfect.”
He brought out a sample of the fried wontons with cream cheese served at Panda Café and explained how he bought as many wonton wrappers locally as he could find, then tried them all until he found the best one to serve.
The same standard applies to sauces, too. “Our sauces are different because we put a lot of focus on them,” said Wu. For the orange chicken at Panda Café, he uses orange juice and rind from the fruit to get the right flavor. “The details are important.”
“It’s about bringing quality,” Wu said, adding that the first step is making sure everything is clean. “Washing hands. Cleaning everything all the time. People don’t always realize how important that is.”
Panda Café has a party room available for private events, and their liquor license will be ready to go by Dec. 2, with drink specials including domestic beers. But everything will revolve around the food.
Special orders are not a problem at Panda Café, and Wu plans to allow customer demand to shape the menu. When asked what he’d recommend, he mentioned the cream cheese wontons and chicken wing appetizers and the sesame chicken as an entrée.
“You know sesame chicken is good if, five hours after cooking it, it’s still crispy,” said Wu.
Five hours later, it was.