There are many things wrong with orange chicken. For one, it was shamelessly concocted to suit the American penchant for fried, overly sweet chunks of meat, a far-off distant cousin of a cousin of the original Hunanese dish that supposedly was its inspiration. As a cultural ambassador, it's a terrible misrepresentation of a country's vastly varied cuisine; those who think this is traditional Chinese fare would be sorely disappointed to discover its omission from many menus at any given restaurant in the San Gabriel Valley (when it is there, on the top right corner of a menu, a look at the lunch crowd likely will reveal why). And yet, for all culinary hell it hath wrought, it is utterly, unabashedly delicious.
Which is why, every once in a while, when the craving for sweet, fried, inauthentic morsels of orange-inflected chicken strikes, we unapologetically hit up the local Panda Express for our fix. But surely there are other Americanized Chinese eateries that make a comparably delicious orange chicken? For this edition of Food Fight, then, we set out to see if the orange chicken at popular Chinatown destination Yang Chow is any match for Panda Express's signature dish.
Panda Express credits itself with creating orange chicken. Even if this is a piece of fast food lore, the chain surely deserves much credit for popularizing and standardizing the dish. In the late 1980s, with chicken nuggets popular at most fast food chains, Panda Express decided to add its own nugget: according to a Los Angeles Times profile, Panda Express “started using boneless and skinless dark meat cooked in a light flour batter to hold the moisture. Then it drizzled on top an orange sauce that Panda executive chef Andy Kao described as 'a little sweet, a little sour and a little spicy.'”
The sauce actually is a lot sweet, a little sour, and definitely not spicy. The orange sauce itself is thick, almost gloopy, and the signature orange flavor is orange almost to the point of nearly overwhelming. And the chicken itself is a bit dry; the batter was not wholly successful at holding in all of the meat's juices. Nonetheless, with our fried rice and chow mein, it is addicting. Its place in fast food history is well-deserved.
Yang Chow takes a slightly more subdued approach. Known for its slippery shrimp, the Chinatown restaurant's version of orange chicken — listed as “Szechuan Chicken (Orange Peel Sauce)” — also is popular. With good reason: this actually is quite good. The batter here is slightly lighter than Panda Express's, giving the chicken a better texture. The most significant difference is the orange peel sauce. Not nearly as sweet as Panda Express's, it's less of a gloop and more of a glaze. The orange is certainly pronounced, but so are garlic and ginger and other spices. There's a depth of flavor here that hits two notes to Panda Express's monotone. Add a bit more spice for even more complexity next time, and it would hit a chord.
Unlike Panda Express though, Yang Chow's Szechuan chicken doesn't come cheap: only available a la carte, this is almost $15 with tax (as the server curtly told us, it is not an option in any of the restaurant's under-$10 lunch specials). It easily feeds at least two, though, or will feed one for at least two meals. Panda Express does have some 1,317 locations to Yang Chow's three, so perhaps we can chalk up the difference to the economies of scale.
In the end, Yang Chow just barely edges out Panda Express. Panda Express's orange chicken is decent, especially for its price, but Yang Chow's version is even better, in spite of its price. In either case, there may be something philosophically askew about ordering a dish that so dominantly contributes to the perpetuation of a cultural falsehood — but for those times when your cravings know no moral bounds, Yang Chow will make it right. To complete the inauthentic experience, cue the Oriental riff.