Are you ever tired of chicken sandwiches? Since the introduction of Popeyes’ explosive sandwich in the summer of 2019, every other quick-service restaurant has tried to acquire the same virality. KFC has reintroduced a chicken sandwich with the same formula as Popeyes: moist brioche bread, pickle slices and creamy mayo. Church’s has launched its own version which includes a honey butter brushed bun. And now, two years later, after that fateful summer of chicken sandwiches, Panda Express is trying the same with an orange chicken sandwich.
For now, the Orange Chicken Sandwich is only available at the chain’s Innovation Kitchen in Pasadena, Calif., A facility specializing in trying out new creations just steps from its corporate headquarters. in Rosemead, California. And, according to Jimmy Wang, director of culinary innovation at Panda, the sandwich has been in the works for two years.
“We’ve always explored portable items that customers can eat on the go, like the Panda burrito at Innovation Kitchen, or as we call it, ‘bing’,” he says. “Given the increased need for convenience and ease in recent years, we wanted to create another pocket-sized item that is classically American – a sandwich – with the most popular dish on our Chinese American menu. “
The Orange Chicken Sandwich features chicken breast wrapped in a crispy puffed rice batter, a similar coating to the new Crispy Almond Chicken (which, if you haven’t tried it yet, might just be the best thing at Panda Express currently). From there, the chicken patty is dressed in the signature orange sauce and placed on a bed of cabbage, tangy pickles and a spicy aioli. The whole thing is crammed between a subtly sweet King’s Hawaiian bun. “It all depends on the combination of flavors and textural elements of the sandwich,” says Wang.
But does it really work?
How does the orange chicken sandwich taste?
Upon receipt of the sandwich, I was admittedly hesitant. The chicken looked pale and was not coated in sauce as is usually the case with orange chicken. In fact, the sauce was hidden under the bread and seemed to be missing. But this is the part where you remember those childhood life lessons about not judging a book by its cover.
The first bite was like fireworks in my mouth: there is the crunch of puffed rice paste; the tangy orange sauce; the zip of tangy pickle chips, softened by the cabbage; creamy and spicy aioli that doesn’t rival orange sauce, but works in tandem; all kissed by this slightly sweet Hawaiian bun. It was like magic.
Bite after bite I had the same feeling – this is a fantastic sandwich. I could tell that a lot of consideration went into getting the right combination of flavors and textures because everything was so balanced. Sometimes a plate of orange chicken can get too vinegar or tangy. But accompanied by a soft bun, cabbage, aioli – and not drowned in the sauce – it’s perfectly reasonable to devour the whole thing. And immediately want a second sandwich for the road.
My only criticism is that I wish the bun was toasted. It’s a bit chilly and doesn’t feel as chewy as a freshly heated bun, which Wang has apparently already thought about. “One of the hardest parts of creating this dish was finding the right bread. We tried steamed bao rolls, sliced white bread, toast rolls and folded pita bread and ended up choosing King’s Hawaiian rolls, ”he explains. “We decided not to toast the buns as the toast tends to harden over time.”
If there was a way to figure out this bun situation, it would turn the sandwich from a new to a perfect 10. Seriously, it tastes so good.
Where to find the orange chicken sandwich
As of now, the Orange Chicken Sandwich is only available at the Innovation Kitchen for a limited time. According to Pebbles Tsai, one of the directors of Innovation Kitchen, they make an average of 60 to 80 sandwiches a day, sometimes as many as 100 on weekends.
Nationwide expansion plans are yet to be launched. “Our goal is to collect customer feedback and understand the feasibility of operations in this phase,” Wang said.
So if you can’t wait to try what could be the next chicken sandwich, hurry up and head to Panda’s Innovation Kitchen before it’s gone.