It’s Friday night at Singing Pandas Asian Restaurant & Bar in Chandler, and Mike Russell, the restaurant’s emcee and impersonator extraordinaire, is channeling the spirit of Neil Diamond.
Russell throws on a flashy sequined jacket — one of many costume props he employs on any given show night — and then dives into a full-throated rendition of “Sweet Caroline.” Strobe lights wash the room in jewel tones, and the song swells to the big chorus. Before too long, the restaurant sounds like Fenway Park in the middle of the eighth inning. The whole room, which includes families, college students, and at least one table celebrating a birthday, is singing along. Every time the chorus’ signature three trumpet beats rolls along — “Bah-bah-bah!” — more than a few people pump their fists in time.
As any Red Sox fan can tell you, you haven’t really lived until you’ve sung “Sweet Caroline” with a large crowd of strangers. And Neil Diamond singalongs, it turns out, are a regular occurrence at Singing Pandas, a Chinese restaurant that quietly opened on Chandler Boulevard in early 2016.
A Chinese restaurant with its own in-house musical revue? It’s a weirdly compelling combo, but one that seems to fit almost any occasion — birthday parties, casual happy hours, or just about any night that calls for a big platter of hot lo mein, consumed in the cheerful presence of a lounge singer. With its free nightly entertainment, and budget-friendly lunch and dinner menus, Singing Pandas is quite often packed, especially on the weekends.
The restaurant’s biggest stage draw is Wallace’s “Legends Showcase Tribute Show,” which is offered every Tuesday, Friday, and Saturday night. There are two shows on each of those nights, and making a reservation by phone is highly encouraged. As part of the revue, Wallace impersonates the likes of Ricky Nelson, Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley, and yes, Neil Diamond. The second half of the showcase features Wallace’s wife, the restaurant’s glamorous co-owner, Sherry Chen, who can usually be seen draped in a glittering gown.
As part of her act, Chen belts out beautiful and somber-sounding Taiwanese and Mandarin love songs. Her natural stage patter involves setting up songs with Tony Robbins-level motivational advice. At one point during a recent dinner at Singing Pandas, Chen serenaded a young diner with a stirring rendition of the Righteous Brothers’ “Unchained Melody,” and it occurred to me that this was the most fun I’ve had at a restaurant all year.
Singing Pandas, the restaurant itself, isn’t as outwardly kitschy as it might sound. It looks unassuming from the outside, even a little worn around the edges. Inside, though, the space is modern and spare. There are two adjacent but distinct rooms — a dim, low-key dining room outfitted with comfy booths and few tables, and a lounge-like dining area with a bar and a small stage. No matter where you sit, though, you can count on uniformly cheerful and attentive service.
The menu at Singing Pandas, a straightforward collection of American Chinese dishes, with the occasional Cantonese or Sichuan flourish, is neither novel nor trendy. This is comfort food in the Panda Express vein, powered by sweet and tangy sauces, served with a side of fried or steamed white rice (your choice).
The appetizer menu covers all the familiar bases — egg rolls, cream-stuffed “crab angels,” and chicken potstickers — an assortment of crispy, grizzled snacks served fresh out of the fryer, still wrapped in the perfume of hot oil.
A highlight, though, is the minced chicken lettuce wrap appetizer. The chicken and veggies are chopped very finely, almost like a hash, and served in a rich, sweet-salty brown sauce. The dish is accompanied with a few dewy iceberg leaves on the side for wrapping up the meat. The minced chicken is so rich with texture and flavor, you may be tempted to skip the lettuce altogether.
The entree menu, meanwhile, is replete with beloved takeout standards like Mongolian beef and orange chicken. The latter features a thin, crispy breading, which manages to stay a little crisp, even smothered in a sweet-tangy sauce. The dish may not be particularly sexy, but it’s devilishly addictive.
General Tso’s chicken, another classic, really shines at Singing Pandas. The saucy, sticky-looking deep-fried chicken pieces have a vaguely crispy crust, which deliciously yields to a tender, juicy center. The dish has a two-chile pepper rating on the menu, but on a recent visit, it barely veered into piquant territory. It’s worth noting that, generally speaking, the kitchen shies away from spice.
Portion sizes at Singing Pandas range from generous to enormous. If you need proof of this, order the egg foo young. The large and sturdily built omelet manages to keep its shape, even smothered under a small lake of brown gravy and layers of diced veggies. The sauce is nicely seasoned, though, and it’s a pleasure to dig into the thick, gravy-laden omelet.
There’s also a very credible mu shu pork, made with grizzled pork slices stir-fried with veggies like Chinese cabbage and bamboo shoots. The meat is tossed in a bright, salty-sweet brown sauce, scented with sesame and ginger. The dish, which is described as a “Chinese burrito” on the menu, eschews the traditional pancakes. Instead, you get a small stack of fresh, powdery flour tortillas, which you can use to make three or four burritos.
Some dishes don’t work quite as well — citrus chicken is nicely breaded, but the meat is slathered in a very sweet, lemony sauce that’s just a few shades away from being able to fill a pie. And a dish of Cantonese-style pan-fried noodles is garlicky and well-seasoned, but on a recent visit, the dish wasn’t cooked evenly, resulting in a small clump of hard, dry noodles.
Still, Singing Pandas is the kind of place that can steal your heart with a platter of sesame chicken. The crackly bundles of fried meat, dabbed with an irresistible honey sauce, are terrific. And then there’s Hong Kong-style pork. The pork is delivered in thick, meaty flakes, which are doused in a sweet-and-sour sauce and peppered with slivers of stir-fried onion. Pair it with some of the house lo mein — the soft, ropy noodles are richly perfumed with soy sauce and ginger — and you have something resembling a modest feast, especially once it’s showtime.
Singing Pandas may not be reinventing the wheel, but it’s sure made having dinner more fun.
Singing Pandas Asian Restaurant & Bar
757 East Chandler Boulevard, Chandler
Hours: Tuesday through Friday 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday 11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m.; closed Mondays
Minced chicken lettuce wraps $8.50
General Tso’s chicken $10.95
Egg Foo Young $9.95
Hong Kong-style pork chop $12.95
Keep Phoenix New Times Free... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Phoenix with no paywalls.