Panda Express Tries to Go Beyond Food Court Fare with New Upscale Japanese Barbeque Venture

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Japanese barbeque might soon become a lot more common in the United States. Panda Express has opened the first YakiYan location in Hacienda Heights, Los Angeles, with plans to open additional locations too, if this one does well.

YakiYan is a popular Japanese barbeque destination in Taiwan, where there are about 20 locations. The chain received an investment from the founders of Panda Restaurant Group Inc. in February, leading to the official opening of the first stateside location on December 21.

Although Japanese barbeque is already relatively common in and around Los Angeles, many of the existing restaurants operating are fast casual, less high-end than YakiYan aims to be. The restaurant features a beautiful interior with leather seating, glossy tables and candlelight.

YakiYan plays on yakiniki, a popular style of barbeque in Japan cooked over live coals. At the upscale Los Angeles location, you will find an omakase set menu option using only prime beef, in addition to sake, beer, wine and a full slate of cocktails. It is certainly a step up from the Panda Express chain, both because of the more upscale interior, the drink menu and finer dining options and the more authentically Asian menu.

The barbeque concept is the third Asian restaurant chain that the Panda Restaurant Group has brought to the United States through franchising. Earlier this year, they opened two locations of Uncle Tetsu, a Japanese cheesecake restaurant, in Arcadia, CA and Hawaii. They are also in the process of opening three locations of Japanese ramen chain Ippudo in Berkeley, San Francisco and Santa Monica in the next year.

YakiYan, a Japanese barbecue concept founded in Taipei City in 2004, is the third Asian restaurant chain that Panda Restaurant Group has imported to the United States as a franchise operator in the past year. Earlier this year it opened two branches of Uncle Tetsu, a Japanese cheesecake maker, in Hawaii and Arcadia. It is in the process of opening three locations of Ippudo, a Japanese ramen restaurant, in Berkeley, San Francisco, and Santa Monica early next year. Uncle Tetsu operates in a casual, bakery style, while Ippudo will be more upscale, like YakiYan.

Panda Express, which is based in Rosemead, CA, generated revenue of $2.5 billion last year. The ubiquitous food court chain seems to realize its future lies beyond malls and has also made investments in American restaurant concepts Pieology and Just Salad. Andrew and Peggy Cherng, Panda’s founders and owners, say they have decided to invest in the group of restaurants to pass off their restaurant knowledge and experience.