Hi, my name is Andy, and — like a certain colleague of mine — I am an orange chicken addict. Like, every time I get Panda Express for lunch, I ~think~ I'm gonna try something new, but I always just get some chow mein and double orange chicken.
If you've never tried orange chicken before, here's a little backstory: Taiwanese American chef Andy Kao is credited with "inventing" orange chicken in 1987 when he was working with Panda Express as their executive chef. He was inspired by dishes from the Hunan province in China, but also incorporated some of the sweet local flavors of Hawaii, where he was living and working at the time. The dish was a hit and became widespread quickly. Of course, the Sichuan dish that orange chicken is likely based on — tangerine peel chicken — is considerably different than the Americanized concoction that Kao created. For starters, there would be a lot less sugar in the authentic Chinese dish. In essence, orange chicken is more of a sweetened, citrusy version of General Tso's chicken...another Chinese American invention.
The thing about this particular Chinese American dish is the recipe seems to vary pretty wildly depending on where you eat it. Everybody has a different idea of how sweet, tangy, or citrusy the sauce should be (and it's allllll about the sauce), and (blessedly) most Chinese restaurants in the US are family-owned and not large chains, so there's tons of variation. So, I decided to try out five different types of orange chicken in the one place where you'll be able to try the same recipe as me no matter where you are in the US: the frozen section of the grocery store.
For this taste test, I picked up five brands of frozen orange chicken: Trader Joe's Mandarin Orange Chicken, P.F. Chang's Orange Chicken, InnovAsian Orange Chicken, Tai Pei Orange Chicken, and Aplenty Orange Chicken (which is Amazon's brand...yep, Amazon makes orange chicken).
I decided to prepare each dish according to the "recommended" method on the packaging. This ended up meaning that three of the options — InnovAsian, Trader Joe's, and Aplenty — would be baked in the oven and tossed in sauce, while P.F. Chang's would be prepared in a skillet, and Tai Pei would just be microwaved in the packaging.
I tried Tai Pei first, since it was the easiest to cook. All you have to do is remove the plastic seal and toss the whole thing in the microwave for four and a half minutes. I tried to keep an open mind here, but knowing that this was going to be microwaved, it was clear to me that this was not going to be a winner in the pantheon of orange chickens.
Sure enough, after giving it a taste, it was...microwaved. The chicken was just a tad soggy, and it had zero crispiness. Of course, it didn't; it was basically steamed in a microwave! I'm not saying I wouldn't eat this for a quick lunch (it does have rice and vegetables, and it's very quick to make), but it's not the kind of orange chicken I'm looking for. However, I will note that this was by far the cheapest of all the options: The regular price was $4.49, and the sale price with my trusty Vons card was just $2.75.
Next, I tried Aplenty — Amazon's own orange chicken. I'm not sure if this stuff is available in stores, as I had ordered it through Amazon Fresh. I included this one for a couple of reasons: One, it would be available pretty much everywhere Amazon Fresh is available, and two, there seems to be some kind of supply-chain-related shortage of certain frozen foods, which included a lot of versions of orange chicken. If your fave isn't in this post...well, that means I couldn't find it in stores.
The Aplenty box had a pretty decent portion of chicken inside, but I was a little concerned that it would be short on sauce. Once cooked, I had to really toss it quite a bit in the bowl in order to get everything coated.
Andy Golder / BuzzFeed
But when I tried it, I was pleasantly surprised! The sauce might be the closest I've had to the Panda Express orange chicken sauce. Depending on how you feel about Panda, that might be good or bad. ... For me, it was good. The sauce was nice and tangy; it had a little zip to it. The chicken wasn't too bad, but it did seem a little more like crispy nuggets than actual pieces of chicken. It was also a little more like white meat than dark meat, so that may be a plus or minus depending on your preference. Using an air fryer was one of the options on the packaging (although not the "recommended" method, so it went in the oven), and TBH, it may have been crispier if I did air fry it. It was good, but I could've used juuuuust slightly more of a sauce to chicken ratio.
Next up was InnovAsian. I'd never heard of this brand before, so I went into this tasting with no biases, other than judging them for their pun name.
One thing I noticed right away was that the portion was pretty small. This was cheaper than some of the options at $5 (regular price $7.99), but by comparison, the Trader Joe's option was $5.99 and had two more servings in the package. On the other hand, the sauce packet was HUGE.
Sure enough, once I mixed this up, there was TONS of sauce compared to how much chicken there was. So no worries here about how much sauce you're getting. I could tell even before eating it that the chicken was very crispy, which is great. The box said it was "tempura," and it did look and taste a little more like that Japanese style of frying, very light and crispy.
Unfortunately, for me, the sauce didn't quite work. And there was so much of it! To its credit, it tasted much more like actual orange than the rest of the sauces, so if you like it citrusy, this might be your jam. For me, it was lacking that tanginess I like, even though there was a lot of orange flavor. It was an interesting sensation where you get this hit of orange-ness up front, but none of the tangy taste on the back end.
On to Trader Joe's. Admittedly, I've had this one before...many times. It's one of the reasons why I figured there was no point in hiding which brand was which from myself, because I'd be able to pick out TJ's orange chicken any day. You get a good portion size with this bag (the biggest of all the options at five cups/servings).
One thing I also really like about TJ's orange chicken is it comes with two separate sauce packets, so if you're a solo eater and you want to make half now and keep the other half frozen for later, you can do that. Can't say I love putting more plastic packaging into the mix, but the convenience is there. Trader Joe's is also the only orange chicken of this array that seems to have real chunks of dark meat chicken. Personally, I think dark meat tastes better in a dish like this, and it also feels ever-so-slightly closer to an authentic Chinese dish, since many Chinese chefs opt for the more flavorful and juicy dark meat.
As I said, I've tried this one before, so the taste wasn't a surprise. But I hadn't had it for at least a couple of years, and lemme tell you...it's still good. The chicken crisps up very nicely in the oven. The sauce is tangy and a little sweet but not TOO sweet. It differs from Panda Express in that way, as it tastes less sugary (of course, it might be just as sugary, but I'm just saying it TASTES less sweet and syrupy). If there's a downside, it's that you don't really get much orange in this orange chicken. The sauce is darker and much more subtle on the citrus. Still, it's tasty stuff.
And finally, I gave the P.F. Chang's a shot. This was the priciest option at $7.99 (regular price a whopping $9.69!), but it does also come with water chestnuts, carrots, and other veggies mixed in.
The recommended — and only — preparation option was to make it in a skillet. Basically, you just dump the whole bag in, cover it for about four minutes, then uncover and stir while cooking for another five-ish minutes. This was a little more hands-on than the other packages, but it's nice to only have one dirty dish at the end.
This was my first time trying the frozen version of P.F. Chang's, although I've eaten at the restaurant once or twice before. The flavors aren't bad at all, but unfortunately, this just seems like the wrong way to prepare orange chicken. Since it's in a skillet — essentially steamed for the first few minutes and then stir-fried in sauce for the rest of the cooking time — the chicken never gets fully crispy. The texture is always a little soft. For me, that's a no-go. But if you don't mind not having crunch to your chicken, the sauce and veggies are reasonably tasty, albeit not mind-blowing. I guess you could potentially take the chicken pieces out of the mix, bake or air fry them separately while you cook the veggies and sauce on the skillet, and then toss them all together, but TBH, I don't think this one was noticeably better in terms of flavor than some of the other options, so that seems like unnecessary work.
So, overall, I'd rank them like this:
5. Tai Pei
4. P.F. Chang's
1. Trader Joe's