Fast food chicken sandwiches have become exhausting. Popeyes caught lightning in a bottle when they dropped their chicken sandwich on the world two years ago, but ever since then every fast food company on earth has raced to make a chicken sandwich that can step to the GOAT. We don’t need another Popeyes chicken sandwich, though — we want something else! The Popeyes chicken sandwich is like Jordan in his prime, nobody on the scene right now is ever going to be able to take down this sandwich, only new blood can inherit the crown.
What if — instead of a cheap imitation — a fast food brand actually tried to change the game by doing something no one has done before? That’s a hell of a lot more exciting, right? So you can see why I was psyched to try Panda Express’ new experimental Orange Chicken Sandwich, which is exactly what it sounds like — a big piece of Orange Chicken between buns. Right now, the sandwich is currently exclusive to the Panda Express Innovation Kitchen in Pasadena CA, so unless you’re in So-Cal or willing to drive to So-Cal to eat an Orange Chicken Sandwich (don’t do this) it’s probably going to be a while until you see an Orange Chicken sandwich at your local Panda. But you’d better believe that I have a review ready for when it does come to a chain joint near you.
See my full thoughts on this fast-casual innovator below:
Panda Express Orange Chicken Sandwich
To say that I was disappointed in just how wildly different this sandwich looked than its promo picture doesn’t even come close to describing how I felt when I unwrapped the Orange Chicken sandwich. I went through a whole range of emotions: shock, confusion, disgust, concern, how would I even take a picture of this? There is no angle and no amount of lighting tricks to make this look appetizing.
Worse than that, I had to actually eat it! Was it even cooked?
Yes, I’m happy to report that it was cooked, and thankfully tasted better than it looked. The breading on this chicken is that same airy corn/potato starch batter that covers Panda’s usual bite-sized Orange Chicken, it’s light, crispy, and soaks up the sauce perfectly. Mine was clearly under-sauced, though. The Orange Chicken sauce is tangy and sweet, with a slight kick of red pepper that creates a subtle heat on the backend. If you’re a Panda Express regular, you know this sauce well and I definitely wish mine had more of it.
Beneath the chicken patty, I found a sad collection of cabbage, a few chunky crinkle cut pickles, and a spicy aioli sauce which had a more pronounced heat than the orange sauce and added a rich umami quality to the sandwich — pulling the flavors together harmoniously. In fact, the spicy aioli playing off of the orange sauce was what really helped to make this sandwich make sense to the palate.
Gripes aside, Panda Express put this sandwich on a large King’s Hawaiian roll which, we have to admit, is a pretty genius move.
After a little reflection, I couldn’t help coming away from this sandwich thinking that it’s missing something. Aside from the obvious need for better quality control and presentation, I think that if this sandwich featured a more intricate slaw, it would do a lot to enhance the experience. Even if Panda Express simply added fresh green onions and carrots to the cabbage and tossed it in sesame oil with cracked black pepper, they might have a sandwich that could actually rival Popeyes, or at the very least offer us something that we actually go out of our way to eat.
Panda Express would also be wise to ditch the pickles. Yes, pickles make sense on a chicken sandwich, but not this one. As it stands, we can taste the insecurity of the Panda Express team. Sometimes they innovate and others they imitate. This is a crazy idea, but if they want to make it work, they need to lean into those Chinese-inspired flavors and find the right complement to them.
The Bottom Line
An interesting experiment and an actually worthwhile product to come as a result of the chicken sandwich wars. That said, we hope Panda Express tweaks this one a bit more before launching it nationwide.
The Orange Chicken Sandwich is available now for a limited time at the Panda Express Innovation Kitchen.