Say what you will, but vegan meat substitutions have come a long way. We’re not just replacing proteins with tofu anymore; we’ve got an extraordinary amount of uncanny animal-product imitators available to us. There are vegan eggs, an array of faux beef options, and a plethora of plant-based chicken out on supermarket shelves. Fast food is increasingly embracing the vegan chicken trend, and Panda Express wasn’t about to get left in the dust: the brand has released a limited-time-only entree called Beyond the Original Orange Chicken, replacing the poultry in its popular entree with plant-based protein (and giving it a punny name with lots of trademark symbols).
The orange chicken was tested at Panda Express last year, but only at select locations; it’s now available nationally. I ambled on over to the nearest location, and while the Beyond version was provided as a sample, I purchased an order of the classic stuff to see how the two compared.
I tried the Beyond version of the entree first. It came in the form of relatively uniform breaded nuggets, tossed in Panda Express’ sweet and vinegary orange chicken sauce. And I have to say, it was pretty impressive. Though it was discreetly apparent that it wasn’t chicken, it still had that spongy texture that emulsified chicken nuggets have.
The telltale sign that it wasn’t meat was mostly in its density. The Beyond orange chicken was pretty dense, with bounce to its chew. I hesitate to call it rubbery, since people usually consider that as an undesirable trait to food, but its chewiness wasn’t off-putting at all.
The other tell was a slight pea-protein-like flavor that mainly came out as the food naturally cooled off. As far as I could tell, there are no ingredients listed on the Panda Express website, but if it’s the same fake chicken base as Beyond Chicken Tenders sold to foodservice, its main protein component comes from faba beans, per Beyond’s website.
Here’s the fun side by side. While the Beyond orange chicken came in roughly round nuggets, the real chicken was shaped much more irregularly, sort of like little clouds.
That irregular shape allows much more of the gel-like orange chicken sauce to cling to its surface, and it gets into all the little nooks and crannies of each piece. But what’s particularly interesting is the texture. The real chicken was much softer than its new vegan counterpart. Had I just never noticed how soft Panda Express’ orange chicken was? My teeth sunk into it effortlessly. (I’d initially believed the orange chicken was made of white meat, but I was wrong—it’s dark meat chicken, as Delish reported in 2017.)
With all that noisy sweet and vinegary orange chicken sauce, it’s hard to tell the flavor of what’s inside either the chicken and its vegan counterpart anyway. You can still detect the fibers in the meaty one and catch a little bit of poultry flavor, but that’s only if you’re concentrating. It could have been practically any protein and I probably wouldn’t have been able to taste what was in it, especially if I was eating it under different circumstances. Like at some gas station rest stop or something.
I keep telling myself I need to cut down on my meat consumption, for I rely on it as a staple in my diet more than I want to. So in the case of a quick lunch, I’d be totally happy to swap out for the Beyond Meat orange chicken at Panda Express to soothe my conscience (even though yes, I know, it’s very processed material, which may not be good for you or the planet).
While the original stuff is just a little better, it relies mostly on the flavor of the sauce and the fact that its core protein is battered and fried. Honestly, it could be fish balls, beef, tofu, whatever, and it’d still taste good.
Sorry, vegans: this entree is prepared on the same line as the meat products, so it’s not 100% vegan or vegetarian and might not be for everyone. I think the Beyond Meat chicken is aimed at people like me, who play it fast and loose when it comes to being an omnivore.
For those of you who are continuously looking for ways to reduce your meat intake, this is an easy way to knock out a meal without feeling like you’ve compromised on too much. If you’re curious, a serving in a bowl (on top of two sides) costs $9.15. The worst that can happen is that you shrug and say you like the meat better, but at least you can save a little meat karma for something else.