Ah, sushi. Is there any food more foreign to the Southern palate than raw fish and rice? When I was a kid growing up in the small towns of South Arkansas, I don’t ever remember seeing it on any menu, although I’m sure it was around even then.
As an adult, I love the stuff, especially the simple nigiri sushi — one pillow of well-formed rice topped by a single slab of fresh fish. It’s simple and complex all at once, because at its heart, sushi is a superb rice dish served with fish, not the other way around.
Of course, not all sushi is lovingly crafted by masters who spent years just learning how to wash rice — much of it is prepared at buffet restaurants to be served alongside a hodge-podge of food that often includes lo mein, fried rice, tiny bits of crispy chicken in sauce, and pizza for the kids. Such is the case at Panda Garden in the Shackleford Crossing Shopping Center. And while I don’t think they’ll be filming a sequel to Jiro Dreams of Sushi here any time soon, I’ve got to admit, the sushi here wasn’t bad at all.
First element of good sushi: rice. Panda Garden’s rice was a lot better than I expected from a buffet, slightly sweet, barely warm, and packed just enough so that it held together without becoming a dense, glutinous mass. Second element: the fish. Again, a lot better than I feared; it was fresh, moist, and cut thicker than is usual on a low-cost buffet. The nigiri were of the three basic types found everywhere: tuna, salmon, and red snapper — and each was fresh tasting and not in the least fishy.
As for the rolls I tried, they were also quite good. A rainbow roll with crab and cucumber topped by swirled tuna and avocado was especially good, with the avocado shining with the bright green that means freshness. It’s impossible to get away with an old avocado, as the creamy vegetable browns so quickly — this was nice and bright.
As for the rest of the Panda Garden, I honestly felt it didn’t live up to its sushi bar. Chicken dishes were bland, overly sweet, and not nearly crisp enough, and everything else tasted like it had been sitting out a little too long. Whoever they have doing their sushi though deserves some recognition