500 E. Semoran Blvd.,
If there’s one thing the United States and Peru have in common, it’s the manner in which both countries have gone about bastardizing Chinese cuisine – you see as many chifa joints scattered about the neighborhoods of Lima as Chinese takeout joints in Orlando. Chifa – from the Mandarin “chi fan,” meaning “to eat rice” – combines Peruvian ingredients with a liberal dousing of soy sauce, the result being a slightly more exotic version of Americanized Chinese food.
There are a few restaurants in Orlando specializing in the fare – China Hut and Pollos a la Brasa Mis Amores on South OBT come to mind – but 8-8 Panda in the old Ohashi space in Casselberry is making an effort to expose suburbia to the hybrid cuisine – though they felt the need to front-load the menu with more than a hundred dishes you could find at a food court or your neighborhood strip mall. The chifa items are printed on an insert wedged inside the main menu; if you can’t find it, ask for it. The owner, who ran a chifa joint in Lima, will gladly fetch you one, then offer recommendations.
Surprisingly, two staple chifa dishes – kam lu wonton ($9.95), a platter of mixed shrimp, chicken, pork and veggies in a sweet tamarind sauce, and pollo tipakay ($8.95), wee strips of fried chicken also mixed in a tamarind sauce – weren’t mentioned; rather, the gregarious chap steered us in the direction of the popular lomo saltado ($9.95) and the black bean duck ($11.95). The former is nowhere near the quality as the same dish served at Pollos a la Brasa Mis Amores. Panda’s lomo saltado is weighed down with limp french fries, and a fishy essence mars the stir-fried strips of sirloin. We tried to neutralize the unsavory bite with their “secret” hot sauce infused with garlic, but all the warring ingredients just muddled the flavors.
No such taste turmoil with the duck – it was tender, properly salty and swimming in a light sauce teeming with broccoli, black beans and assorted crispy vegetables. Prior to diving into the heavy mains, we snacked on – nay, indulged in – some fried wonton strips that seemed to be laced with a substance that proved habit-forming. We went through two orders before a bowl of caldo de gallina y kion ($3.75) distracted our senses, its soupy broth punched with ginger along with comforting chunks of chicken and cabbage. A roast pork dish was also suggested, and the sauce on the chancho con verduras ($8.95) was impressive in both sweet-to-tang ratio and smooth consistency.
Of course, no chifa experience would be complete without chaufa. The heaping plate of chaufa de carne ($7.25), with its mound of fried rice mixed with scallions, eggy bits and beef strips, was big enough for two, possibly three, people. The aroma was enticing, but the rice was a tad mushy and the dish as a whole looked as dull as it tasted.
Still, the chaufa appears to attract, rather than deter, a more forgiving patronage of Latin Americans and expat Limeños to 8-8 Panda – especially on Fridays and Saturdays, when additional Peruvian Creole dishes are prepared. They seem to be acutely aware that for a budding culinary movement to entrench itself, particularly a niche cuisine like chifa, a little trial and error must be tolerated.