We Tried the New Orange Chicken Sandwich at Panda Express

Among a sea of new chicken sandwiches, is this version worthwhile?

panda express orange chicken sandwich
Photo courtesy of Panda Express; Design by Chineme Elobuike for Thrillist
Photo courtesy of Panda Express; Design by Chineme Elobuike for Thrillist

Are you tired of chicken sandwiches yet? Since Popeyes’ explosive sandwich was introduced back in the summer of 2019, every other quick-service restaurant has tried their hand at gaining the same virality. KFC reintroduced a chicken sandwich with the same formula as Popeyes: plush brioche bun, slabs of pickles, and creamy mayo. Church’s launched its own version that features a honey-butter brushed bun. And now, two years later from that fateful chicken sandwich summer, Panda Express is attempting the same with an Orange Chicken Sandwich.

As of now, the Orange Chicken Sandwich is only available at the chain’s Innovation Kitchen in Pasadena, California—a brick-and-mortar that specializes in testing out new creations that’s a mere skip away from its headquarters in Rosemead, California. And, according to Jimmy Wang, the director of culinary innovation at Panda, the sandwich has been in the works for the past two years.

“We have always explored handheld items that guests can eat on the go—like the Panda burrito at Innovation Kitchen, or as we call it, the ‘bing,’” he says. “Given the increased need for convenience and ease in recent years, we wanted to create another handheld item that’s classically American—a sandwich—with the most popular dish from our American Chinese menu.”

The Orange Chicken sandwich features chicken breast battered in a crispy rice puff batter—a similar coating to the new Crispy Almond Chicken (which, if you’ve yet to try it, might just be the best thing at Panda Express currently). From there, the chicken patty is dressed in the signature orange sauce and placed upon a bed of cabbage, tangy pickles, and a spicy aioli. The whole thing is stuffed between a subtly sweet King’s Hawaiian bun. “It’s all about the flavor combination and textural elements of the sandwich,” Wang says.

But does this actually work?

What does the Orange Chicken Sandwich taste like?

Upon receiving the sandwich, I was admittedly hesitant. The chicken looked pale and wasn’t coated in sauce like orange chicken usually is. In fact, the sauce was hidden beneath the bun and seemed lacking. But this is the part where you remember those childhood life lessons about not judging a book by its cover.

The first bite felt like fireworks in my mouth: There’s the crunch of the rice puff batter; the zesty orange sauce; the zip of tart pickle chips, mellowed out by cabbage; the creamy and spicy aioli that doesn’t compete with the orange sauce, but works in tandem; all hugged by that lightly sweetened Hawaiian bun. It was like magic.

Bite after bite, I had the same feeling—this is a fantastic sandwich. I could tell 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 become too vinegar-y or tangy. But paired with a soft bun, some cabbage, some 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 critique is that I wish the bun was toasted. It’s a little bit cold and doesn’t feel as fluffy as a freshly heated bun—which is apparently something Wang already thought of. “One of the more challenging aspects of creating this dish was finding the right bread. We tried steamed bao buns, sliced white bread, toasted buns, and folded pita-like bread and ended up choosing King’s Hawaiian buns,” he explains. “We decided not to toast the buns since toasted bread tends to harden with time.”

If there was a way to figure that bun situation out, it’d take the sandwich from a nine to a perfect 10. Seriously, it’s that good.

Where to get 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 managers at Innovation Kitchen, they average 60-80 sandwiches a day—sometimes breaking 100 on the weekends.

Plans for nationwide expansion are not yet set in motion. “Our goal is to gather guest feedback and understand operations feasibility in this phase,” Wang says.

So if you’re itching to try what very much might be the next ‘it’ chicken sandwich, hurry and make your way to Panda’s Innovation Kitchen before it disappears.

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Kat Thompson is a senior staff writer of food & drink at Thrillist. Follow her on Twitter @katthompsonn