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Food

Photos: Panda Express Goes Gourmet With Its 'Innovation Kitchen'

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Panda Express has gone gourmet experimenting with a high end Chipotle-esque experience to their new Innovation Kitchen. The experimental outpost in Pasadena is moving away from old school food court fare and testing out a new concept that's all about customization and choice.

The famous panda logo is still on the front door, but other than that, not much is the same. The Innovation Kitchen—the only one of its kind in the country, so far—has added made-to-order food, big screen TVs, free Wifi and even a tea bar to enhance your food experience.

It's all part of thefast casual movement that's been taking over as of late, with restaurants like 800 Degrees, Chipotle and Bibigo attracting customers with their more market-driven, highly customizable gourmet offerings. The Innovation Kitchen is meant to be a testing ground for the Rosemead-based company, and has been called a "living laboratory" by the company's founders.

At the Innovation Kitchen, diners wait in line to choose a base, proteins, and toppings. Step one is to choose between rice, salad, chow mein or a scallion pancake wrap. Step two is to choose your protein. Choices include orange chicken, honey walnut shrimp, kung pao chicken, Beijing beef, grilled veggies, broccoli, string beans, stir-fry chicken breast, Angus steak, grilled chicken, or steak. All of their stir-fries are made to order in giant woks. Step three is to top your base off with green papaya slaw, mango, crispy wontons, shallots, and a slew of other garnishes and sauces.

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Fans and media are freaking out over the Orange Chicken Burrito, which is made by stuffing the signature dish inside a scallion pancake along with some fried rice.

Items come in a small size, which includes one main and a base for $5.80, and a large size, which includes two mains and a base for $7.

And it’s not just the food that has gotten an extreme makeover, the Innovation Kitchen invited a tea master from Taiwan to spend two weeks to design their teas. The Panda Tea Bar offers patrons the ability to customize a tea drink of their choice with boba, chia seeds, tea jelly, and pudding to a variety of different beverages. The tea bar is also serving cake and pastries from a number of local Pasadena bakeries including Flour + Tea until they are able to start producing their own in the future.

A glitch in the system is that the tea bar and the meal bar are operating like two totally separate entities. You can order your tea separately at their counter or add it to your meal bill, but even if tack on your drink to your meal, you may be done with your scallion pancake burrito before the drink comes out.

Regardless of the glitches and discombobulated tea service, the store is packed with customers no matter what time of the day it is. Wether they'll make a name for themselves beyond the Orange Chicken Burrito, though, remains to be seen.

Panda Express is planning on opening two more "innovation kitchens" in the next month—one bubble tea-only location in Honolulu and another in Irving, Texas, according to Fast Company. Panda Express sees other kinds of fast food—not other Asian food—as competition, so it makes sense that they see Chipotle as a competitor. Dave Wallinga, Panda Restaurant Group’s vice president of guest marketing, told Fast Company:

"You can either continue to innovate and grow or lose market share. For us, it's a question of what we can do in our position to stay relevant and attract the next generation of Panda customersWe track trends just like everyone else in industry and see the opportunity to become a choice more often with more people. Bubble tea drinks give people another reason to come into the store, salads give people a reason to grab something at lunch while they might think of us as dinner food, and it’s the same with wraps--something more handheld might attract guests who are moving quickly.”

It's worth noting that Chipotle is also trying to make inroads into Asian fast food with Shophouse, which has locations here and in DC. Shophouse is more focused on Southeast, spicy flavors instead of Chinese food, but Fast Company notes the ordering process and general vibe of both places is very similar.

The Panda Express Innovation Kitchen is located at 3867 East Foothill Boulevard in Pasadena, (626) 351-9128

Born and raised in Los Angeles, California, Kristie Hang is an avid world traveler that spends 3 months a year in Asia. She has an affinity for bizarre foods and is also the co-founder of the 626 Foodettes Blog, a hyperlocal food blog highlighting culinary options in the San Gabriel Valley. You can follow her on Twitter, Instagram or Facebook.