The Past, Present, and Future of D.C.’s Panda Gourmet
Published in Washington City Paper, January 6th 2021
When Panda Gourmet opened in December 2012, it followed several other restaurants that occupied the Days Inn at 2700 New York Ave. NE. The motel, once described as having “a Tom Waits, ‘Jockey Full of Bourbon’ vibe,” housed Chinese laborers building the Chinese Embassy from 2006 to 2008 and until recently, families experiencing homelessness.
Before Panda Gourmet came Joe’s Noodle House, Sammy’s Restaurant Steak & Buffet, and other restaurants serving Chinese or Asian food that shuttered in succession. After the closure of a Vietnamese pho place, Sammy Xie, who manages the Days Inn and hails from China’s Fujian province, turned to his friend Joseph Huang to gauge his interest in opening a restaurant. The pitch, according to Panda Gourmet’s manager Mei Lai, was that having a restaurant as part of the motel, rather than leaving the space vacant, would be better for business. There would be a proper place for a meal on site.
In the early part of the last decade, many people traveled from China to D.C. or ventured from the U.S. to China because, according to Lai, “relations were good between the two countries.” There was a fresh population—students, researchers, travelers, and others—who had experienced Chinese food in China, she notes.