651 Parker Farm Rd., Buxton
According to their website, Panda Market is “Buxton’s Most Acclaimed Gas Station/Restaurant.” They’ll get no argument from me.
From a distance, Panda Market seems like a typical country convenience store, this one occupying a quiet intersection somewhere between USM’s Gorham campus and Standish’s Bonny Eagle High School. But inside you’ll find a Chinese restaurant that also sells pizza, subs, burgers and breakfast, an Asian grocery store that also stocks Western essentials, and a small dining area currently occupied by a forest of Dracaena sanderiana, also known as “lucky bamboo.”
Panda Market is owned by Steve Zheng and May Lang. Their daughter Rachele, who’s in high school, is the sole employee. According to Rachele, her parents both immigrated from the Chinese city of Fuzhou: Steve to California, May to the Bronx. (Rachele said her father doesn’t speak much English; her mother was too busy for an interview.)
Steve worked at buffets on his journey across this country and “learned his cooking style on his own, from many YouTube videos,” his daughter said. The parents labor up to 14 hours a day, every day, so though they live only 10 minutes away, the family, including six-year-old Olivia, takes many of its meals in the back room of the shop. Such are the sacrifices when you sell food and fuel. (I’m always envious of the staff meals at Chinese restaurants, so I asked Rachele what they cook for themselves. She listed Hunan-style cauliflower, stir-fry asparagus, tomato and egg stir-fry, Beijing duck, Hunan-style steamed meat with egg, and “a lot of steamed fish.”)
Chinese take-out gets taken for granted, perhaps due to the remarkably comforting sameness of the over 40,000 Chinese restaurants in the U.S. A small cluster of print shops in New York’s Chinatown print the menus for thousands of these eateries nationwide. Fast-food franchises maintain vast, vertically integrated systems to achieve this level of consistency, but to a much lower food-quality standard. How many barbecue chains have better ribs than Chinese char siu? Who has better vegetarian dishes?
This consistency must be due, at least in part, to the fact Chinese cooking has been highly codified since at least the 6th century BC, when Confucius advised against eating any foods that are “discolored,” “smell bad,” are “crookedly cut,” or “lack proper seasoning.” The knife skills and wok techniques, the sense of harmony in taste and color, the audacity to combine meat and fish in one dish (would even the most adventurous Western chef dare to put Scallops With Pork Kidneys, or Jellyfish and Chicken, on the menu?), the use of the whole animal (feet, pizzle, ears, you name it) — all this and more earns Chinese cuisine a very high place in world gastronomy.
Before gas and electric cooking, wood-rich countries developed cuisines that traditionally involved roasting things on spits or stewing stuff in giant caldrons. People in lands with less fuel learned to fry, or sauté — that is, they generally learned to cook better. To this day, the Chinese style, stir-fry, is unsurpassed as a fast-cooking technique, which makes it ideal for take-out.
Panda Market’s food is above average by local take-out standards. Of the several dishes we sampled, the Singapore Mei Fun (thin rice noodles with chicken, char siu pork, egg and shrimp, spiced with a curry powder) has become my go-to. We also had a pizza that was as good as one can expect from a gas station.
In the grocery area, Asian and American items are stocked side by side: the Gochujang (spicy Korean fermented bean paste) is next to Heinze pickle relish, oyster chips crinkle up against Chester’s Flamin’ Hot Fries, and in the cold case the miso paste is flanked by butter and cream cheese. From the freezer we took home some dim sum dumplings, mini pork-patty links with black pepper, and takoyaki (octopus balls).
Panda Market has many items you can’t get in Maine outside of Portland, and plenty of things you can, like live worms for fishing — it is in Buxton, after all.