Today, like all days, the internet is at war. The battlefield? Twitter. The objective? To disdain or defend Panda Express, depending on your loyalties. It started with this shot:
“Who the fuck is keeping Panda Express in business,” a Twitter user asks bluntly. The replies soon poured in, the vast majority of them from ardent defenders of the American Chinese chain restaurant.
“Y’all can stop pretending that panda express is nasty,” read one reply.
“I can get a big plate of super greens and teriyaki chicken and eat for three days on it,” read another. “That’s cheaper than groceries.”
There were, however, some supporters of the OP who pointed out that independently owned restaurants could use the business and offered very similar fare.
“The last time I ate there, I got a giant bowl of white rice…and three pieces of chicken,” wrote one user. “For the same price, I can get a small entree at Tang’s, my favorite Chinese restaurant, that lasts 3-4 meals.”
So, okay, when it comes to how much value Panda Express offers, your mileage may vary. And the argument sits at an interesting cross-section of “support local businesses rather than chains” and “don’t be elitist about the food people eat.” Most of all, what the kerfuffle seems to indicate is that there are fast food chains that invite all our ire and derision in a way that McDonald’s simply doesn’t. Why? Why are some chains more embarrassing to “admit” a passion for? We have some guesses about the nation’s most maligned brands.
Let’s start with America’s number-one purveyor of Orange Chicken. Panda Express does not claim to be “authentic” (a term that comes with its own caveats), nor does it claim to be producing “Chinese food”—it’s always careful to call its innovations “American Chinese” cuisine. Yet some act as though its sticky, gloopy, sugar-forward dishes have somehow deceived us.
While there’s certainly an argument to be made that we should patronize local independent Chinese takeout operations when we can, it’s also true that those restaurants have adapted to American palates in a similar manner as Panda: sweeter sauces, more meat, less emphasis on vegetables. The Panda Express menu, while every bit as sodium-packed and indulgent as any fast food out there, is at least open about where it draws its influences from, and where it decides to riff.
“I’m so hungry I could eat at Arby’s.” I truly believe that most of our nation’s disdain for Arby’s can be clocked to The Simpsons’ decision to repeatedly make it a punchline throughout the span of the series—and it’s been posited online that the reason Arby’s was always a target on The Simpsons was simply because it’s a funny-sounding chain restaurant. The ol’ “-y’s” terminus is comedy writer catnip.
There might be some weight to this theory. On The Simpsons, the jokes about Arby’s always imply that the roast beef restaurant’s sins are self-evident; specific qualities of the food itself are never really scrutinized.
Long John Silver’s has a niche and doggedly sticks to it: fried seafood, grilled seafood, and fried stuff that isn’t seafood (hush puppies, chicken tenders, etc.). Since many areas of the country don’t have access to fresh seafood, these deep-fried mass-market versions tend to be the affordable and accessible option—and our innate lack of familiarity with seafood means LJS is already working at a disadvantage. In the Midwest and elsewhere, many of us grew up unaccustomed to the fishy smell, flaky texture, and unique oily qualities of cod and pollock. Even when you wrap it up in crispy golden breading, it is viewed with mild suspicion. Except on Fridays during Lent, when it’s suddenly manna from heaven.
That said, we might all be kinder to Long John Silver’s if it still looked like this:
Okay, here’s the thing about Subway: While much of the criticism lobbed at this brand has been about the quality of the food itself—yoga mat bread, dubious tuna—Subway deserves our scrutiny for far better reasons than its mass-market menu. Its longtime ties to a certain spokesperson, for example. Or its disregard for employees’ safety. Or its mistreatment of franchisees. Or the skeevy reputation of its founder. Or its singleminded goal to sell $5 footlongs when there is no mathematical possibility for such a model to succeed. So when you make fun of someone for enjoying a Sweet Onion Chicken Teriyaki, it kind of misses the point, and holds the wrong side of the transaction accountable.