Those who know me can tell you stories about my memory, or lack thereof. So you will understand how big a deal it is that, thirty-odd years later, I still remember the day my wife and I, as we drove from our apartment to visit my parents, noticed a new restaurant occupying a space that had sat empty for quite some time. As soon as we walked through the door, it was clear the place was not open yet, but a nice woman let us know opening day was but a few days away. Unfortunately, circumstances prevented us being there for day one, but on day two, we sat in a booth eagerly perusing a menu filled with dishes we’d never encountered before.
The restaurant was named Panda Palace and they specialized in Szechuan, Hunan, and Mandarin dishes rather than the Polynesian- and American-influenced stuff that passed for Chinese in greater Boston back then. Best of all, they cooked without using the flavor enhancer MSG, instead relying on fresh produce and meats to provide satisfying flavors. And satisfying they were.
As we learned that first day, the owners names were Sarah and Fred Lin. She was American, he Chinese. She ran the front of the house, he ran the kitchen.
The food was amazing. Seriously. The dish that stood out for me that day was Moo Shu Pork, a mixture of shredded vegetables, meat, and sauce served with four flour “pancakes.” Sarah brought the dish to our table and showed us how to wrap the filling in the pancakes. By the end of the meal, we were hooked. For the next two decades, we must have eaten there or ordered takeout from there at least once a week.
At some point, they opened a second location south of Boston. Sarah ran that one and Fred moved from the kitchen to the front of the house in “our” place. Thanks to the pictures on the front desk, we watched their three children grow from babies to teens to adults.
After my bypass operation a decade ago, our visits to the restaurant slowed, but never stopped. Chinese became a once-a-month treat instead of weekly fare. Still, every time we entered, Fred would greet us by name.
About a year ago, we stopped in and Fred was not there. Neither was he there the next time, nor, I realized, was Sonny, a waiter who’d been with the restaurant since day one. When we asked about him, we were told Fred was in Florida managing a new restaurant. Then we noticed the food was changing. The recipes seemed to be the same, but they didn’t taste quite the same. Sometimes the food was great, sometimes it was just, well, Chinese food you could get anywhere.
We eventually realized Fred was never going to return, and we felt a loss at not being able to say goodbye to him and Sarah. Still, even with the unevenness, we stuck with the place, though we noticed each time we went that it was never crowded anymore. Then, last month, our delivery was accompanied by a notice they were closing for a month to remodel and add a sushi bar.
We anticipated the reopening, which kept getting delayed thanks to the area’s famously we’ll-get-there-when-we-feel-like-it building and health inspectors. But it finally did re-open last week and last Friday, Martha and I stopped by for dinner and found some remodeling but, more important, all new faces. Clearly, the place had changed hands again.
It was Martha who thought to ask about MSG and it was a good thing she did. As we’ve aged, our intolerance for the stuff has increased to the point where eating MSG-laced food results in severe headaches. The waiter told us that, yes, all the food was cooked using MSG. To me, that meant they were using a lower quality of ingredients and relying on the MSG to boost the flavor. After being assured there was no MSG used in the sushi, we opted for that. It was okay, but these days, really good sushi is available in dozens of locations around here. What is no longer available is really good Szechuan, Hunan, and Mandarin food prepared without flavor enhancers.
It is a basic truth of life, perhaps the basic truth, that all things must pass. In our lives, we’ve lost family and friends, lovers, jobs, cars, clients — so many people and things. And now, Panda Palace.
I suppose we can console ourselves with the knowledge that somewhere out there must be another place that cooks great food without needing to resort to flavor enhancers. Now, we just have to find it.
Do you have a favorite restaurant or take-out place? If so, tell us about it.
And have you ever lost a favored place?