We Tried the New Panda Express Plant-Based Orange Chicken & It Could Have Fooled Us

Panda Express has made its plant-based Orange Chicken available nationwide. Here's our review.

Courtesy of Panda Express
Courtesy of Panda Express
Courtesy of Panda Express

Panda Express has a lot of dishes on the menu. That, however, is a bit like saying there are a lot of cars in the parking lot at the Indy 500. It’s the cars on the track that matter, and it is the Orange Chicken that matters at Panda Express.

The American Chinese fast-casual chain has made its name on that sugary chicken dish. Last year, it gave a tantalizing preview of a new twist on that classic at select locations: Beyond the Original Orange Chicken. As of September 7, the plant-based orange chicken is available nationwide for a limited time.

We took advantage of the expanded availability and tried the turn on a classic to discover whether a plant-based version could stand its ground next to the dish that Panda Express made famous in the US.

The Texture

When Beyond the Original Orange Chicken comes out, it looks like it was manufactured. Each piece is uniform, shaped like a small chicken nugget. That is not really a problem. It means that the plant-based chicken substitute is evenly cooked and coated. But it also means you are not getting those little crunchy, fried extras at the bottom of the container.

The texture is like a nugget, as well. The nugs lack the stringy meatiness you get with Orange Chicken’s dark meat. The interior of these bites is airy, smooth, and, again, uniform. It does not feel like chicken in the mouth. But it does have that taste of white meat chicken, mild though the taste of Panda Express chicken might be.

Overall, the differences didn’t strike me as weird in any way. It was satisfying, with a crunchy “skin” surrounding the nuggety texture. Plus, the gloopy, thick sauce that coats the chicken is the same as in the original dish.

The Flavor

The Orange Chicken legacy at Panda Express is undeniable, but I do not spend much time hanging out at the local PE. So, I wondered if I exaggerated the sway it still held over hungry Americans who want American-Chinese food as fast as possible.

As I bellied up to my bowl of Beyond the Original Orange Chicken over broccoli, kale, and cabbage, I heard patron after patron-a man from the nearby construction site in reflective yellows and a pair of high school students on a lunch break, among others-order Orange Chicken. It’s no Gallup Poll, but I saw it in action. 

So, if Orange Chicken remains a go-to for your lunch break, know the plant-based variation is going to hit the spot in terms of flavor. Whether the bowl holds chicken or Beyond chicken, you want that familiar sticky sweet spiciness. And you are getting that. Both versions use the same sauce. 

Should you get it?

This new dish does not significantly rise above or below the standards you expect from the chain, whatever those might be. Compared to the dish that made the Panda famous, the Beyond the Original Orange Chicken is a worthy replacement. The differences are slight. It’s the texture or that the plant-based version carries slightly fewer calories. In general, they’re awfully close to being identical. And that, after all, is kind of the goal.Want more Thrillist? Follow us on InstagramTwitterPinterestYouTubeTikTok, and Snapchat.

Dustin Nelson is a Senior Staff Writer at Thrillist. Follow Dustin on Twitter.


Mad Mex’s New Menu Item Is Inspired by a Popular Mexican Street Food

mad mex chicken al pastor

Mexican restaurant chain Mad Mex has dropped a new protein, and it’s one of the most popular street foods in Mexico.

Enter, Chicken Al Pastor. It’s traditionally made with pork and grilled on a spinning rotisserie with a pineapple sitting a top, but Mad Mex has put its own spin on it, serving chicken bathed in an Al Pastor marinade with a touch of juicy pineapple.

You can order the protein-packed filling in your favourite burrito, bowl, quesadilla, nachos, or in a taco.

As always, these things are here for a good time, not a long time. Pop into your local Mad Mex restaurant, order delivery or through the Mad Mex app today.

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