If there were a list of the most iconic fast-food items of all time, perhaps the Big Mac would top it. Maybe the Whopper would come soon after. You probably wouldn’t have to go much further down the list to see Panda Express’s orange chicken. For so many, Panda Express is a staple of mall food courts and airports; for me, it was a key food group of my college days, when I frequented the local outlet more than I care to remember. But was there even any point going to the Chinese-American chain without getting a heaping scoop of that signature dish to lay so delectably upon an order of fried rice?
So, it was a nostalgic event, after several years, to set foot in a Panda Express in order to try a modern twist on the original. The chain has collaborated with Beyond Meat to reinvent its orange chicken in a plant-based version, using Beyond’s new chicken product: Beyond the Original Orange Chicken (or B-TOC, for short). The move was driven by a demand from consumers, who, the restaurant says, are increasingly asking for herbivorous options. But, with the reputation of such an iconic dish at stake, the long development process absolutely had to go right. They needed to recreate the same tastes, textures, and feelings of satisfaction.
Though the outlet has been going for almost 40 years, “We know that our customer base is also growing and changing,” says Jimmy Wang, executive director of culinary innovation, noting that more are becoming flexitarians, or switching to plant-based diets entirely. The company has been working on “vegetable-forward” sides and appetizers, says Jessica Chao, head of communications, who notes a movement on social media for more plant-based options. But, she says, the company hasn’t innovated to the same extent yet on the classic entrées—those “more indulgent comfort foods.”
That’s an apt label for orange chicken, the chain’s most popular dish, which Wang estimates represents one-third of its business. The restaurant sold 100 million pounds of it in 2020. Panda Express even claims it was the originator of the entire concept of orange chicken: As Wang tells the story, it was on a Panda Express missionary trip to bring the restaurant to Hawaii that the citrus flavors of the islands piqued the interests of founder Andrew Cherng and then-executive chef Andrew Kao. They blended that profile with the sweet-and-sour flavors of Cherng’s native cuisine from Yangzhou, and Kao’s inclination for the spicy and pungent dishes of the Hunan tradition. And so, in 1987, orange chicken was born.
Clearly, in the plant-based overhaul, the stakes were high; Wang says the new version would have to “satisfy the craving” every bit as much. The verdict? That it does! First, it looks the same, albeit with pieces a little more uniformly square than the more freeform chicken chunks. But the taste is pretty indistinguishable—to the point, I confess, that I would not have detected a difference if I hadn’t known. That comes as a relief to Wang, who says they want customers to “enjoy almost the same classic flavor.”
In order to develop that flavor, the two companies worked in the lab over the course of more than a year, with Beyond trying to capture all the attributes of the proprietary recipe, including the texture, shape, seasoning, and sensations. It tastes like they’ve used the same ingredient list, which according to NPR, includes brown sugar, honey, garlic, ginger, chili, Chinese black vinegar, and oil from orange peels. The balance of those elements, however, is secret; like the Big Macs and Whoppers of the world, the recipe for orange chicken is surely locked securely behind Fort Knox-level restraints.
B-TOC will launch July 26 in select stores in New York and Los Angeles—with possibly more plant-based dishes on the horizon. At the tasting event in midtown Manhattan, they also showcased Beyond Beef potstickers; a kung pao mushroom and potato dish; quinoa brown fried rice without eggs; and an eggplant and tofu entrée with mapo sauce that Wang describes as spicy to the point of being “a little bit numbing.” These dishes aren’t being released yet, but they’re a vision of what customers could fill their paper plates with in the near future.
For Beyond Meat, chicken is back on the radar. While their focus of late has been on red meat, chicken was actually their first offering, in 2012. (They pulled it from the shelves to improve the product.) Now, the company says, chicken is a hot category in this era of the “chicken sandwich wars.” The plant-based giant has just released their chicken tenders to 400 medium-sized restaurants, but Panda Express is their first Asian-cuisine collaboration. Like the Beyond Burger, they’ll keep adjusting the item until it precisely mimics the original animal protein.
In contrast to the burger, which I recently tasted with CEO Ethan Brown on the World Changing Ideas podcast, I was struck by how much faster they were able to replicate the orange chicken, and on the first attempt. Perhaps burgers are harder to reproduce. Or, perhaps it’s because most of the orange-chicken flavor is contained not in the “chicken,” but in that thick, crisp batter, slathered with tangy, piquant, orange goop that keeps you wanting to go back for more. Beyond Meat reports that this version is lower in calories, fat, and sodium than the original. Regardless, B-TOC already feels like an addictive indulgence.
I hadn’t thought about Panda Express in more than a decade. Now, I (almost) can’t stop thinking about it.
Correction: We’ve updated this article to correct the date of the launch of Beyond Meat’s chicken. It was in 2012, not 2009.