Give It’s Thyme a chance, but always remember Panda Express

I really like It’s Thyme, and I think students should eat there more. But I am not glad they replaced Panda Express. In fact, I am still sad that Panda is gone. 

At first, I refused to patronize It’s Thyme on principle. Mostly, I blamed them for displacing my beloved Panda. I also resented how they exemplified the bowl-ification of Duke Dining. I disliked the lemon chicken and black beans served during their testing phase at Chef’s Kitchen, which epitomized the seasoning practices of bodybuilder cuisine (squeeze of lemon, hold the salt). 

I went recently, ready to be the ultimate hater.  Like a Clemson football fan, I sulked and lurked about the premises. 

But then I took my first bite, and I was gobsmacked. The food was really good!

My bowl was refreshing, flavorful and hearty. The lemon chicken had leveled up. It was shredded rather than chunked, and it was significantly juicier. The black beans were well-seasoned and perfectly cooked. Julienned carrots, homemade pickled jalapenos and piquant toum provided freshness, zing and spice. 

Additionally, the generous helping of protein, five hearty scoops of vegetable toppings and an adequately-sized container provided significant heft. I even had leftovers! It’s Thyme achieved the optimal balance between the often-generous, sometimes-oily Sazon and the never-generous, often-refreshing Ginger + Soy. 

I went back for the next three meals in a row. The food tasted better each time. Even during lunch rush, the staff were friendly, efficient and calm. Evidently, the restaurant’s team was actively improving their offerings to provide the best customer experience possible.

I’m thrilled to have a new restaurant in my rotation, but I feel bittersweet about Panda’s closure. It’s a shame that Panda is gone, but it’s also a shame that It’s Thyme’s arrival — what should have been an exciting occasion — coincided with the elimination of Panda Express.

In fact, Duke Dining explicitly stated in their press release of It’s Thyme’s opening that “the West Campus venue will replace Panda Express.” Without advance notice, students felt shocked and betrayed

Unfortunately, the sudden closure of campus favorites is eerily familiar. Nearly a decade ago, Grace’s Cafe, another beloved restaurant, was announced to close with little advance notice. Nearly a thousand undergraduates, alumni, professors, hospital workers and graduate students signed a petition in a futile effort to overturn the decision. 

Like Panda, Grace’s Cafe also served homestyle favorites, but better. In addition to steamed rice, stir-fried vegetables and meats full of wok hei (a flavor now extinct on campus), Grace’s served beef noodle soups, Lunar New Year specials and even comfort foods like tomato eggs and jjamppong. Ultimately, Gyotaku and Ginger + Soy replaced the family-run restaurant. Similar to today, a hip, trendy eatery replaced a stalwart student favorite. 

Some may argue that Panda Express is mostly relevant to students of Chinese heritage. I argue that Panda Express is culturally relevant to all students regardless of their ethnic background.After all, there are over 35,000 Chinese restaurants in America, more than those of McDonalds, Burger Kings, Kentucky Fried Chickens and Wendy’s combined. This mind-boggling supply of Chinese restaurants indicates that there is no small appetite for Chinese cuisine. I didn’t grow up eating Chinese takeout, but I’ve learned through sitcoms —known for their slice-of-life portrayals of America— that Chinese takeout is a national institution. Are Duke students’ tastes really so different from the country at large?

In fact, Panda’s absence tightens the Duke bubble. We have crepes, sushi and bowls in every color and shape imaginable, but we do not have kung pao chicken. Without Panda, Duke campus life reflects American life a little bit less, and imitates the life of the high-powered Sweetgreen machine a little bit more. 

I think some students were partially upset that with Panda gone, there is one less option for Asian-ish food. But students were also upset that, from an outside perspective, the decision not to renew Panda’s contract felt opaque and premeditated. Why couldn’t Panda’s contract get renewed? Was Panda Express really so much more unhealthy than other deep-fried delights on campus, like vegan tenders, buffalo wings or mac-and-cheese bites? Was national branding really so detrimental to Duke Dining’s community-driven mission?

I don’t mean to wax poetic about Panda Express or fangirl over It’s Thyme more than necessary. Mostly, I feel sad that these two restaurants’ fates became intertwined in a zero sum competition. In either case, Panda’s loss seemed like It’s Thyme's gain, and it’s unfortunate that It’s Thyme was caught in a crossfire. Regardless of their backstory, It’s Thyme is here to stay, and students would be doing their taste buds a disservice by not giving the restaurant a fair chance.

In the future, I hope Duke Dining will handle restaurant changes differently. Providing hard revenue and profit numbers, as well as soliciting student input through campus-wide forms rather than select focus groups, would promote a culture of transparency. 

Bringing back wok hei wouldn’t hurt either. 

Jessica Luan is a Trinity senior. Her column typically runs on alternate Fridays. 


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