At Panda Express, Orange Chicken is the most popular item on the menu.
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“It’s about a third of our business… close to about 100 million pounds we sold last year,” started Jimmy Wang, director of innovation for Panda Express.
The crispy fried chicken tossed in a tangy sweet sauce keeps customers coming back for more.
Now, a new choice is available: a plant-based version of the dish called Beyond Orange Chicken.
“We had to taste and taste and taste for the past year we had many, many iterations but at this point we believe this is the best product we want to showcase at our restaurant,” said Wang.
Panda Express is teaming up with Beyond Meat for the test item, which launches today at select restaurants in New York City and Los Angeles.
Beyond Meat might be best known for their burgers, but one of their first products was actually chicken strips. The recipe has come a long way since then.
At Beyond Meat’s El Segundo headquarters, over 200 food scientists, researchers and food technologists break down animal meat to a molecular level. Then they attempt to recreate the taste and texture with plants, while improving on nutrition.
“This is a necessity… with all the global warming and all the environmental issues that we have, we have to have a more sustainable solution for our food,” said Dariush Ajami, Chief Innovation Officer at Beyond Meat.
Now, with a Panda partnership and new chicken tenders rolling out to other restaurants nationwide, Beyond is firmly planting itself in the chicken wars.
“Our target is the meat eater… this is for everybody… this is not just for a small percentage of the population… they will be the judge,” said Ajami.
At a Panda Express restaurant in Culver City, the company quickly cooked me up a batch of the Beyond Orange Chicken. First, the nuggets are deep fried, then they’re wok tossed with the sauce.
The first thing you notice is that the chunks are more of a uniform size. There is a bit of variation in the manufacturing process but they are all roughly the same bite sized chunk.
The finished product looks very close to the original. One bite and you might not notice a huge difference. The chunks are crispy on the outside and moist on the inside. The flavor is nearly identical.
It’s hard to believe Beyond Orange Chicken is mostly made from fava beans and peas. It was so good, I ate my entire serving.
Keep in mind, while Beyond Orange Chicken has slightly less calories, salt and nearly no cholesterol, this isn’t being marketed as health food. Just an alternative food to sustainably serve a growing population.
Bottom line: Beyond Orange Chicken is a remarkably realistic re-creation of the original.