How strange it is that the only sushi available in downtown Amherst is at an essentially Chinese restaurant. For this, Panda East draws a
bustling crowd. Suffice it to say that none of the food here will blow you away. But what Panda lacks in culinary finesse, it sometimes makes up for in price. The sushi may be merely acceptable, but it's considerably cheaper than average for the Valley, especially the maki. The rest of the Japanese menu includes garden-variety udon, tempura, teriyaki, and donburi. The nabe yaki udon, a bland dish by nature, has no unexpected vegetables to spice it up. The tempura don is deeply fried and heavily battered, beginning and ending a thick and monotonous meal.
The Chinese portion of the menu offers no surprises, but the standards are prepared plainly and as expected, from the chicken with snow peas to the lo mein. There is a decent barbecued beef stick, an acceptable everything-but-the-kitchen-sink-style chow fun noodle dish, an unremarkable mushroomy vegetable egg roll, and just-above- average beef with broccoli, garlic sauce dishes, and so on. "Double happiness," another popular suburban standby, is shrimp and pork or chicken that's deep fried in a sauce that's astoundingly orange. Pan- fried noodles are poorly executed: they're supposed to be crispy on the outside and soft on the inside. These, however, are crispy throughout, giving them a bird's-nest, shoestring-potato-chip quality. Popcorn chicken is another failure, crispy but too salty and devoid of other flavor.
The highly deferential and welcoming attitude of the waitstaff- particularly impressive given the relatively low prices-adds immeasurably to the texture of the Panda East experience for many diners. To those that prefer something more laid back, though, all the formality might seem a bit much at a restaurant of this sort. The interior of Panda East also offers little privacy. The large room has few partitions to divide the space. It gets crowded at dinner and on weekends, as students and families drive up the noise level. Still, Panda remains a popular restaurant for sushi and Chinese food, even if neither is exceptional. If you've got an Amherst craving for tekka maki and can't make the drive down Route 9, then Panda East is your best downtown bet.