Panda Express’ White Whale

The fast food chain has been tinkering away at one menu item for over a year.

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Panda Express New Original Orange Chicken Sandwich
Image: Panda Express

Not known for its handhelds but definitely known for its Orange Chicken, Panda Express seems to be hell-bent on delivering a chicken sandwich to customers, no matter how late in the trend it may be. According to a press release sent to The Takeout, Panda Express is currently testing a new version of its Original Orange Chicken Sandwich in its Innovation Kitchen in Pasadena, California from through October 26th.

Although this is the second iteration of the brand’s Original Orange Chicken Sandwich, it’s actually not the second attempt by the brand to perfect a chicken sandwich offering—it’s at least the third.

A brief history of Panda Express chicken sandwiches

The chicken sandwich craze may have started all the way back in 2019 (feels like decades ago), but Panda Express entered the game in 2021 and has apparently been making up for lost time by tirelessly trying to figure out how to present its Orange Chicken in a way that best lends itself to a sandwich format.

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First, the fast food chain tested the Original Orange Chicken Sandwich exclusively in its Innovation Kitchen. This initial sandwich product consisted of a breaded white meat chicken breast topped with both orange chicken sauce and a spicy aioli sauce, paired with shredded cabbage and crinkle-cut bread-and-butter pickles, served up on a sweet King’s Hawaiian bun. The sandwich sold for $5.95 and had a limited run.

After that, Panda Express put a different (and in my opinion, more creative) spin on its sandwich. Food Network reported in March of this year that the brand was testing out a smaller version of the original sandwich, this time served on a bao bun. This new toasted bao sandwich included a crispy chicken strip coated in orange chicken sauce, topped with sliced pickles and drizzled with a sriracha aioli. (No cabbage this time.)

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In an email to the Food Network at the time, Chef Jimmy Wang, Executive Director of Culinary Innovation at Panda Express, said the offering was inspired by bao, a Chinese handheld street food item with which the newest sandwich shared a similar size and format. The chef called it a “quintessential American Chinese mashup.”

Both the original Panda chicken sandwich and the later bao mashup have yet to see a nationwide launch, but that doesn’t mean they never will. In the meantime, Panda Express is testing yet another orange chicken sandwich. This New Original Chicken Sandwich version 2.0 swaps out the sweet King’s Hawaiian bun for a brioche bun, glazes the entire crispy chicken strip with Orange Chicken sauce instead of just topping it, and omits the shredded cabbage as the bao did. However, much to my disappointment, the bread-and-butter pickles remain the same, and as does the spicy aioili. (They’re just too sweet for my taste.)

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With all these chicken tests limited to Pasadena, it’s hard to judge what customers are responding to, and what exactly Panda Express is trying to nail down before releasing a sandwich nationwide. We can only hope that with each test, those of us outside Pasadena get closer to tasting the offering for ourselves. My vote goes to the bao, because at least that stands out from the sea of brioche-swaddled sandwiches already on the market.