Summary List Placement
Orange chicken is a popular dish that’s been around for decades, but there’s still some debate about the best place to get it.
What started out as a mere addition to the Panda Express menu went on to become a food phenomenon, as restaurants and grocery chains around the world now offer their own version of the dish, with some rivaling the popularity of the original.
So I decided to sample three of the most popular orange-chicken takes on the market from Trader Joe’s, Panda Express, and P.F. Chang’s to see which was best.
Read on to find out how the store-bought, fast-food, and upscale orange-chicken options all stacked up.
Trader Joe’s award-winning Mandarin orange chicken was just as delicious as actual takeout
Trader Joe’s Mandarin orange chicken is one of the brand’s most popular items — it’s so beloved by shoppers that it’s won best entrée seven years in a row at the chain’s annual Customer Choice Awards.
After trying it for the first time last year, I also became a dedicated member of that fan club.
But the most obvious difference between Trader Joe’s orange chicken and its taste-test competitors is it’s the only one that requires any actual cooking.
In some ways that is a drawback but in others it’s a plus, as you can add as little or as much sauce to the chicken as you want and choose to fry or oven-bake the dish.
You can also doctor it up with some chili oil or flakes if you favor spice.
Trader Joe’s orange chicken also had the crispiest texture
Once the Trader Joe’s orange chicken was prepared, I couldn’t even tell I’d cooked it from frozen.
From bite-sized crisps to chewy mouthfuls, the fried-chicken pieces came in varying sizes, so no two scoops were identical.
The breading on this chicken’s exterior was much thicker than most restaurant versions, which I found gave every bite a satisfying crunch. Plus the meat was still surprisingly soft even after being cooked under the dry heat of the oven.
Without being super heavy or oily, this meal reminded me of a typical fried-chicken entrée.
The sauce that comes with the dish is much thinner than some others, so much so that it’s more like a glaze. To combine the components, I used a shallow mixing bowl, which left each piece nicely coated.
Good orange chicken is mostly defined by its sauce, which is why Panda Express’ balanced mix of sweet, tangy, and savory remains unmatched. And although it wasn’t identical, Trader Joe’s orange-chicken glaze came close to mimicking the iconic combo.
Flavor-wise, the grocery chain’s sauce is much much less spicy than Panda Express’, but it still had a nice, even blend of tangy orange flavor and a sweetness that didn’t taste syrupy or artificial.
It leaned slightly more to the acidic side, which nicely cut down the sugar and created a wonderfully balanced dish.
Panda Express’ orange chicken had the most memorable flavor
According to NPR, Panda Express is believed to have invented this popular dish in the 1980s when a chef at one of the chain’s Hawaii locations experimented with creating a spin on General Tso’s chicken.
I’ve eaten this restaurant’s orange chicken for as long as I can remember. Affordable, tasty, and consistent, it’s pretty difficult to beat as far as fast-food dishes go.
At a glance, the order looks pretty unassuming — it’s essentially bite-sized morsels of fried dark-meat chicken coated in a sticky, tangy orange sauce with no vegetables anywhere in sight.
And served in the signature red takeout box, it is a simple, no-frills option that’s pretty much designed for convenient eating.
But don’t let presentation fool you — this orange chicken hit all the right notes of a perfect takeout meal.
The chain’s signature sauce really made this chicken a standout hit
Thick enough to cling well to every piece but not so syrupy that you have to scoop it up with a fork, this sauce balanced honeyed sweetness and tang just right.
Plus the lip-smacking umami finish lingered on the inside of my cheeks and kept me reaching for more like a bag of salty potato chips would.
The orange flavor was clearly detectable, but it didn’t overpower the entire dish, which I actually prefer so my dinner doesn’t taste like a mimosa. And a kick of chili came through to give each bite an extra oomph.
Plus every chicken morsel was fried to perfection and had a tender, juicy center.
Compared to the other two dishes I tried, this one’s breading-to-chicken ratio was just right, as the coating on each piece was thick enough to provide an initial crunch without tasting like fried bread.
To put it plainly, the chain’s meal was perfectly balanced, and I wouldn’t expect any less from a company that’s had several decades to perfect its recipe.
Currently, a small order costs under $5 and gets you enough food to eat as an entrée for one or a light snack for two. This seemed like a pretty solid deal until I realized that an entire multi-serving bag of orange chicken from Trader Joe’s is only $4.99.
P.F. Chang’s orange chicken had a refreshing, homemade taste
A single order from my local P.F. Chang’s cost me $14.95, making it the most expensive orange chicken I tried for this taste test. But to be fair, that price gets you a more sophisticated version of this takeout classic.
Right off the bat, I was impressed by how this meal looked.
Garnished with fresh orange slices delicately placed around the edges and finely minced scallions speckled throughout the center, this entée consisted of several thick pieces of meat doused in a vibrant sauce.
This order also came with a side of rice at no extra cost. Compared to the others, this option had the appearance of a complete meal rather than a snack or appetizer.
Although the chicken was juicy and well-marinated, the orange-peel sauce was slightly too sweet for my liking
According to its menu, P.F. Chang’s current orange chicken features a recently updated recipe. Since I’ve never tasted the previous version, I can’t accurately speak to what’s different about this new one.
The chain describes its orange-peel chicken as “lightly battered” with a “sweet citrus-chili sauce” and “fresh orange slices” — and based on what I tried, that seems accurate.
To start, the chicken was cooked perfectly — I’m talking melt-in-your-mouth quality.
I don’t know what’s in the batter, but I’d have to guess it contains some cornstarch, as each piece of chicken had a thin outer layer of breading with a delicate crisp that gave way to a tender meat interior.
It could be that I’m so used to the fast-food version of this dish, but the sauce seemed off-balance and was a little too tangy and fruity for my liking. It reminded me of an orange marmalade with the slightest whisper of chili.
The sauce’s jelly-like texture oddly paired with the fried meat, and there was also way too much — the chicken was practically swimming in it.
And although I appreciated the fresh oranges, they seemingly served no real purpose beyond garnish.
I’ll give P.F. Chang’s props for elevating this classic takeout dish and putting an upscale spin on it, but I can’t picture myself craving orange chicken and immediately reaching for this fancier version first, especially when others exist for half the cost.
If you love traditional sweet-and-sour sauce or the “orange” half of the equation the most, you’d probably enjoy this option. But if you’re looking for something with that familiar orange-and-spice combo, I’d advise ordering from elsewhere.
Still, if I went to an office party or a dinner soiree where P.F. Chang’s was being catered, I definitely wouldn’t turn this dish away.
Despite having to cook it myself, Trader Joe’s orange chicken may be my new go-to
P.F. Chang’s meal had a yummy, fresh taste to it, but its citrus-forward sauce lacked the distinct orange-chicken seasoning found in the other versions. And although the portion size was generous, it is still much pricier than the other two options.
But when choosing a go-to orange chicken, it really comes down to preference.
If you like yours on the sweeter side, you may find P.F. Chang’s meal to be just right. If you favor more of a spicy or tangy taste, you’d probably enjoy the other two.
With a winning combination of sweet, tangy, and umami, Panda Express is clearly the expert when it comes to this iconic dish. That said, Trader Joe’s orange chicken left me feeling equally as satisfied.
And the fact that I can buy a 22-ounce bag of it from the store for almost the same price as a small order from Panda Express made it quite clear to me who the winner of my orange-chicken battle had to be.
Sure, eating it requires a little bit more work than simply ordering takeout. But considering I can get at least two meals out of it for the price of one, Joe can go ahead and take my money.
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