Right now, just about every establishment in the fast food space is rushing to produce a delicious and more sustainable alternative to animal-based proteins. Taco Bell is testing out some weirdness, KFC, a brand that has “chicken” right in its name, has attempted plant-based chicken, and a handful of burger chains have turned the plant-based burger into a menu staple. The average person is growing more and more aware of the damage we’re inflicting on our planet and many opt to lessen their meat consumption as a result. Fast food joints are responding in turn.
Unfortunately few of these plant-based options are actually any good. Luckily — for me and any orange chicken lovers out there — Panda Express is one of the success stories.
The annoyingly named “Beyond The Original Orange Chicken” is a new menu item that promises to have the “same texture and flavor as the original orange chicken, while being a good source of plant-based protein.” It’s currently set to be tested out at select locations in New York City and Southern California starting on July 26th. Ahead of the launch, Panda offered us an early taste-test of the *sigh* Beyond The Original Orange Chicken.
Do we have some thoughts? You’d better believe it. Let’s dive into them!
Beyond The Original Orange Chicken
Right off the bat, before I start talking about what I love about this plant-based chicken, we need to talk about this stupid f*cking name. I’m not an expert in marketing, I’m merely a fast food consumer, but I fear fast food brands are over-complicating naming this stuff. Taco Bell calls their new plant-based chicken chalupa a “Naked Chicken Chalupa with a Crispy Plant-Based Shell” which is just as bad if not worse than “Beyond The Original Orange Chicken.” I can’t believe I’m saying this, but fast food brands should look to Burger King for inspiration. What do they call their plant-based Whopper? The Impossible Whopper. Nice and simple. Why not call this, I don’t know, “Plant-based Orange Chicken,” or hell, I’d even take “Orange Chicken (Plant-based)” over “Beyond The Original Orange Chicken.”
Okay, rant finished. As I said earlier, Panda’s new plant-based orange chicken is pretty damn tasty. They’re able to achieve this the same way chain restaurants have turned “Cauliflower Wings” into an appetizer staple, by smothering the plant-based chicken in sauce. Aside from the protein, Panda’s plant-based chicken is identical in taste and texture to the OG Orange Chicken. The sauce has a highly sweet and tangy flavor, with hints of red pepper that supply a nice lingering heat on the palate. With the light and crispy corn-starch-like texture of the batter, Panda’s Orange Chicken as appetizing audibly as it is visually. This dish plays on all of your senses.
Does that mean the plant-based version is as good as the OG?
I’m sorry but no. While the flavor is almost identical, the mouthfeel is totally different. As you can see in the above photo, the texture of the plant-based version is weird and webby, and it pretty much feels in the mouth how it looks. The plant-based version is chewy in a way that the OG isn’t, and while the chicken in Panda’s regular Orange Chicken isn’t exactly of the highest quality, the flavor is a lot more neutral, and that serves the sauce better.
That sounds bad, but I think it’s kind of a minor gripe overall. I could eat this stuff and not miss the original. I was even able to fool a roommate by asking if they wanted to try Panda’s “new Orange Chicken sauce recipe?” They popped a whole one in their mouth and still don’t know what they ate wasn’t chicken.
That’s a good sign, if imitating meat is the goal.
The Bottom Line
If you can get past the texture of the plant-based protein, this is almost identical to the OG. The dominating flavor is identical to the real chicken version, with the biggest difference between the two being the mouthfeel. The plant-based chicken has a chewier texture, which takes a bit more work to get through.