Social media: the final frontier. Nary can a misunderstanding online go unnoticed in the age of the screenshot and share function on all of our devices. Now, for one newspaper editor, that time has come.
On Sept. 19, editor Alex Lasker tweeted out excerpts from a local news article she found while searching for information about a Panda Express opening in her neighborhood in Manhattan, New York.
“Absolutely losing my mind at this article about the new east village Panda Express written by someone who has never heard of Panda Express in their life,” reads the tweet, which has since gone viral, garnering over 41,000 likes and more than 2,400 times retweets.
In the screenshots, which come from an article from local Manhattan newspaper The Village Sun, the author shares details about the Panda Express restaurant opening in the city.
“A troubled East Village corner that has been dark for a while is going to be enlivened by a new storefront. Panda Express is coming into the space at the southwest corner of 14th Street and First Avenue,” reads the opening of the article, mentioning another restaurant in the area, a sushi restaurant called Hane. “Rather than a swanky sushi spot, it’s a self-described ‘fast-casual’ Chinese restaurant.”
“As for Panda Express, it describes its fare as ‘Chinese Flavors With American Tastes,’ if that makes sense. The chain’s 'all-time favorite' dish is 'Original Orange Chicken,'" reads another portion of the article highlighted by Lasker.
Under her tweet, Lasker also ran a poll asking, “have you heard of Panda Express?” The poll has garnered 46,806 votes, with 91.2% saying they have in fact heard of it. That means while around 42,687 people that voted so far have in fact heard of the fast food chain, around 4,119 people haven’t, one of them, perhaps, being the article’s author.
Hundreds of comments on the tweet took the opportunity to poke fun at the article and the way it was covered, recalling another viral review — when Marilyn Hagerty earnestly reviewed Olive Garden and achieved restaurant reviewer fame.
“This belongs in a museum,” replied one Twitter user.
“I’m all the passive aggressive quote marks,” replied another, responding to a “tag yourself” prompt by the original poster.
“Tbf, when they say ‘Original orange chicken,’ they can mean it: It appears that Panda Express was the restaurant that invented the dish,” replied yet another Twitter user — who is correct about that, by the way, Panda Express executive chef Andy Kao created the dish offered on most Chinese American food menus in 1987.
Some folks on the thread went a step further, jokingly writing facetious reviews for internationally known fast-food chains.
“The hamburger chain — which a press release states is known for a large M-shaped sign called ‘golden arches’ — serves hamburgers and fries in a delivery system called ‘fast food,’” tweeted one person. “Its signature sandwich includes two patties and is named a Big Mac, according to the release.”
“The new franchise named “McDonald’s” (Irish?) claims to offer something called “burgers” and “French fries” (from which region of France specifically — call me skeptical),” tweeted another.
To find out how she came across the post in the first place, TODAY Food spoke to Lasker, the Twitter user who started the whole hullaballoo.
“I’m currently researching Panda Express’s new vegan orange chicken to conduct a blind taste test with the original recipe for a video I’m making for my company’s TikTok,” said Lasker, an editor at The Cool Down, a climate media start-up. “I nostalgically love a good Panda Express.”
Lasker, who lives in downtown New York, was walking through the East Village and saw that there was a new Panda Express location opening and went online to see if that location opened.
“I clicked on *that* link expecting some information on the grand opening date, and instead found what I would assume must be an AI-generated article,” she said, adding that she sent it around to her co-workers thinking it was too funny not to share. “They were dying over it. So obviously, the warm reception led me to post screenshots on Twitter."
The article was not penned by a robot (as many on Twitter had speculated) but a human, one who said there’s a very good reason it sounded like he had never heard of Panda Express — because he hadn’t.
“Sorry to all the outraged and over-the-top Twitter posters, but I was NOT that familiar with Panda Express!” Lincoln Anderson, editor and owner of The Village Sun, told TODAY via email. Anderson explained he is the author of the article and that he grew up in Manhattan, which currently has five Panda Express locations that are currently open. “My paper is a small start-up paper. We’re trying to make a difference and help the community.”
Panda Express, while it does exist in most of the 50 states, does have some blank spots, with less than five locations operating in states like Colorado and North Dakota and no locations currently open in most of northern New England, including Connecticut, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont.
“I think there are something like 24,000 restaurants in NYC, this isn’t a suburban town with one main street, ” Anderson said. (There were 23,650 restaurants in NYC according to 2019 data by the New York State Comptroller.) “Again, many New Yorkers probably don’t have a clue what Panda Express is — or don’t care, no disrespect to Panda Express. Also, I didn’t recognize the names of a lot of the folks on the Twitter thread, which is another thing that makes me think a fair amount of them might not be local. But that’s OK, of course.”
Some Twitter users in the thread came to the defense of Anderson and his article, remarking that it’s statistically unlikely to run into a Panda Express, which historically aimed to open in malls, in the city of New York, which only opened its second Manhattan mall in 2016.
“If you are a NYC native, you may never have run across a Panda Express...few malls, multiple Chinatowns,” noted one user on Twitter. Other users said that since there are so many options for Chinese food in the city, they too had never heard of Panda Express.
“My conclusion — which is what I was starting to think last night after seeing all those tweets, many of which came from people who did not sound like they come from NYC — is that Panda Express is suburban or possibly outer-borough ‘mall food,’” Anderson said. “Again, sue me for this, but I grew up in Manhattan and I have not really spent much of my life in malls. Again...sorry about that!”
Anderson said that the main goal of his article was to express that active commercial storefronts like the one Panda Express would bring to his neighborhood would add to the vitality of the street and improve the area’s quality of life.
“This corner has been empty for a number of years and it’s become kind of a down-and-out corner, the way other parts of that intersection have. An active storefront there would improve that corner,” he said. "That was really the interest and impetus for the article — rather than the wonders of Panda Express’s ‘Famous Original Orange Chicken.’”
Anderson said he’s thinking of writing a “reaction piece” about how Panda Express is suburban mall food and how downtown Manhattan residents have tons of better-tasting Chinese food options. He also said he’s been asking friends and other New Yorkers if they’ve heard of the chain and heard that many haven’t unless they've entered malls.
“Generally, the whole idea of this tweet going ‘viral’ is, I think, really more about Twitter than the article itself," Anderson concluded. “People wanted to have fun with it, be outraged, to mock, to vent, whatever, to feel snarky, superior. Today is another day and they will find something else to go off on. So it goes. This is the reality in 2022.”