Wednesday, October 7, 2009

The Invading Panda

It's a story as old as David and Goliath.   It's the story of Don Quixote.  It's the story of the underdog.  It's the story of the mom and pop store battling with the corporate conglomerate, in this case literally.  In one corner, again literally, was a Chinese institution in Hawaii, Patti's Chinese Kitchen.   In the other corner, actually it was the adjacent wall, was the newcomer, the juggernaut, Panda Express.  It was the epic clash of the Chinese fast food restaurants.  And in this case, the underdog lost, and with it a page in our local history.

Patti's Chinese Kitchen was a cornerstone of Ala Moana Shopping Center.  When I was little, the only 2 restaurants that I could distinctly remember at Ala Moana, were Wong's Okazu-ya over on one end and Patti's, right in the middle.   It was the first stake driven in the Makai Market food court.   Originated by Calvin Chun, Patti's was actually named for his little girl, so she's not the grandma cooking in the back you imagine her to be.   Actually, Patti has a sister, Lynn, who he also named a restaurant after, Lynn's Delicatessen.   When I was a small kid, Lynn's was the bastion of the downtown working crowd, so although I remember Lynn's being mentioned on the reverse side of their soda cups, I never really frequented it much.  Patti's on the other hand, was especially vivid to me.   I remember the red and black tiles, and the steam coming up from the huge steamers filled with manapua.   I remember the shiny metal railings that they used to have to guide people through the queue.   When you're like 4 years old, the whole ordering process seemed at once magical and intimidating.   But I remember loving to go there, even when I was little.  

As I grew up, Patti's was always there.    When I was in intermediate school, I used to take piano lessons on Friday nights.   It so happened that on those nights, my mom would also be taking lessons in the art of Miyuki Silk Flowers.   So after piano class, it would just be my dad, my sister, and I for dinner.  Every week we would find ourselves at Makai Market.   Sometimes my sister and I would go to other places, but my dad... my dad would eat the same thing every week from Patti's; some fried rice, some beef broccoli, and of course their awesome shrimp rolls.   The shrimp rolls were similar to oyster rolls, but they used shrimps instead of oysters, ground up in pork hash, browned nicely on the outside and covered with a sweet sticky red sauce.   As the growing boy, I would of course steal some from his plate.   So as I grew older, I found myself ordering the same things too.

And then came Panda... Pandas should have some ominous theme music the way sharks do.   It's not that I have anyting really terribly against Panda.   It's just that I seriously didn't think that any of their food was really recognizable as Chinese.    I mean, I really had no idea what kung pao chicken was supposed to be.   Were those cashews?   What the heck are cashews doing in Chinese cooking?   Aren't they a western nut you find in your Planters mix?   Do cashews even grow in China?   Why is everything so spicy?   Thai food is spicy.  Korean food is spicy.  Chinese food isn't supposed to be that spicy.  Are those eggplants?  Are those zucchini?  Seriously, aren't those French vegetables?   Why is everything so tangy?  What the heck am I eating?   Yep... that was pretty much my first reaction when I tried Panda Express.

Okay.  Let's be fair.   We have to compare apples to apples right?  Panda has fried rice.  Patti's has fried rice.   What's in Patti's fried rice?  Some bits of char siu, some egg, some bits of ha mai (shrimp), standard leftovers in Chinese cuisine.   What's in Panda's fried rice?   Diced carrots and peas, and some egg.   Uh... aren't those the kind of vegetables you find on a frozen dinner?   This doesn't taste Chinese.    Okay, let's take my favorite thing at Patti's.  The classic lemon chicken.  Simple, you've got some fried chicken nuggets, glazed in a sweet golden lemon sauce.  It's not haute cuisine, but we are still talking fast food here.  It is still a classic and beloved favorite.   So how does Panda's taste?   Wait... they don't have it?  What the heck is orange chicken??  Why is it made with oranges instead of lemons?   It's similar, but, it's way too tart.   Okay, the one thing I did like at Panda's was their beef broccoli.   Somehow, their broccoli was, maybe less cooked than at Patti's.  So it was a little greener and a little crispier.  Patti's is cooked a little longer, and because of that, the beef is a little softer, the gravy soaks into the broccoli flowers and it's a bit tastier.   So Panda's beef broccoli is good, but Patti's was still better.

So, here is this huge mainland chain, serving a sort of pan-China/faux-China, Chinese food, vs. a Hawaii staple with Cantonese style food handed down through the generations.   Local people wouldn't let the mainland eatery win out would they?   Unfortunately, local people aren't the only ones eating at Ala Moana.  Many tourists eat there too, and being a mainland chain, are more familiar with Panda's fare.  So, we hung our heads, as yet another beloved Hawaii cornerstone closed.   What about the other locations?   Patti's in Kahala Mall?   Well, not only did they close, but they were replaced by a Panda!  Thankfully, the location in Pearlridge is still there, but it's a bit far for going to dinner every Friday night after piano class. 

For me, the loss of Patti's is a little more significant though than the loss of just one treasured Hawaii memory.   It's more significant still than the loss of a mom and pop business to a big conglomerate.  It is the loss of a cultural identity.  Remember that China is very big, and that there are many different regions to China.  Panda's cuisine is based on more Northern styles.   The Chinese in Hawaii are all decendants from Southern Cantonese farmers who came to work on our sugar cane plantations.   This is the same in most of the Chinatowns around the world.  It used to be that when you traveled to San Francisco, or New York, or Vancouver, all you would hear is Cantonese Chinese.   Now more and more, as new arrivals come from Shanghai, Beijing, Taiwan, and other places, you hear Mandarin being spoken with increasing frequency.   Now, I'm not an idiot.  I know that the function of language is communication, and without commonality of language, there is no way for that basic functionality to occur.   So I myself have spent time to learn Mandarin, and can speak it with some modest proficiency.  But at the same time, you have to ask, where are all the Cantonese speakers going?   Where are they disappearing to?   Look at how hard people have fought to keep Latin, or Hawaiian for that matter, being taught and used so that it doesn't become a dead language.  But with China's policy of making Mandarin the official language, Cantonese is almost being systematically stamped out.   I don't mean to sound so persecuted here, but that's honestly how I feel sometimes.    Think about how the Southerners would feel, if the Yankees all came down South and said you couldn't say "y'all" anymore, and that all soul food restaurants would be replaced with Applebees.   That's pretty much how it felt to lose Patti's.  

I don't really hate Panda.  But I do miss Patti's.  And along with the loss of Patti's, I worry about the loss of our local Hawaiian Chinese flavors, and language, and culture.


  1. I agree with Patti's being better than Panda's. But, they are both still fast food. As long as cantonese cuisine is still being perpetuated in regular local restaurants, which they are, there is no danger of that cuisine disappearing. Especially if people are still making it at home.

    And where did all those Cantonese speakers go? Well, they've become established in Hawaii now, and they've moved on from the restaurant business to become our realtors, bankers, and other high-paid professionals.

  2. Thanks for the explanation.I wondered why everyone talked about all the other restaurants and not Pattis. It was always the best manapuas an the best plates ,the best pork hash. I grew up in the 60's an 70's with Patti's! Thanks rj

  3. I woke up early this morning and was thinking about my Dad, Calvin Chun. Searching online I came across your blog on Patti's Chinese Kitchen. Your comments were so sincere and reminded me of all the wonderful, loyal customers who supported us for over 40 years. My Dad was always concerned about providing the best quality for the best price and it made him very happy to be the first to give his customers the choice of entrees on his signature Princess Plate.

    My Dad died peacefully last year at the age of 97. We chose to have a private memorial service for him, just as he lived his life, a very humble, private person.

    My family wishes to thank you for sharing your memories of Patti's and we are grateful to be remembered as a treasured local tradition.
    With much Aloha,