Though he doesn't quite remember the exact location, chef Jimmy Wang visited a Panda Express when he was 15. It was 1994, he'd been traveling with his family down in the South, and they found themselves in a strip mall in the suburbs.
Wang and his family had immigrated to the US from Taiwan the year before. They didn't eat out often when they initially moved to the States, but when circumstance demanded it, they felt most comfortable eating dishes that reminded them of the home they left behind. When the Wangs came across this Panda Express location one day during their road trip, they parked their car, headed inside, and ordered a batch of Orange Chicken, that atomically hued dish of breaded, boneless chicken, fried in a wok with vegetable oil and coated with a sweet citrus glaze.
Wang was dazed; he didn't know fried chicken could taste that good.
Now 38, he works as Panda Express's Director of Culinary Innovation, a post he's held for three years. Since its inception in 1983, the chain has mostly been concentrated in America's suburbs, where there can often be a paucity of restaurants offering Americans more rigorous and complex styles of Chinese cuisine. The way Wang sees it, Panda Express has thus had to assume something of an ambassadorial role in certain pockets of the country, serving as a gateway into Chinese cooking for Americans living in enclaves that present few other options.
Prior to Panda Express, Wang had been classically trained in French cuisine, but his role at Panda Express was the first that really allowed him to engage with the flavors of his homeland. "My mother was a great cook," he remembers. "I was never able to use her influences on a professional level before I joined Panda. It was my opportunity to utilize those influences."
One of the recipes Wang inherited was the chain's Orange Chicken, which debuted 30 years ago today. It was created by Andy Kao, former Executive Chef of Panda Express. "Traditionally, a tangerine chicken from Chinese cuisine is not a deep-fried, crispy dish," Wang explains. "But the idea of using essential oils from tangerine peels really inspired Kao. He wanted to use the flavor of fresh oranges in California during that time."
Orange Chicken has, in its three-decade-long lifespan, exhibited rather remarkable endurance, surviving the chain's expansions and ever-widening menu to remain the restaurant's most popular dish.
"The popularity of our original Orange Chicken, similar to the growth of Panda Express, is beyond my wildest dreams," Panda Express CEO and co-founder Andrew Cherng writes me over email. "We take our role as the home of American Chinese food to heart."
"It's about comfort," Wang says of why the dish has inspired such steady, unceasing affection. "When it comes to American cuisine, everyone knows fried chicken. And the American palate enjoys sweet and sour." He cites ketchup and coleslaw, arguing that Orange Chicken belongs within this same canon.
"The culinary origin of the dish was supposed to come from Hunan in Southwest China," Haiming Liu, author of the 2015 book From Canton Restaurant to Panda Express: A History of Chinese Food in the United States, writes me over email. "However, the significance is not about about its authentic flavor but the fact that Panda Express has made this Chinese flavored chicken dish a well-known dish in [the] American restaurant market. It is not only in Panda's chain restaurant stores, but also in mainstream grocery stores like Trader Joe's."
In the three decades since its conception, the dish has taken on a life of its own. Orange Chicken is unapologetically Americanized, Wang maintains; that's the point. Sometimes, Wang gets people who question or challenge the dish along the lines of authenticity, a matter that's become particularly fraught as America has seen a profusion of more Chinese restaurants commensurate with the regional depth and variety of China's provincial cooking.
"We hear those messages," Wang says. "But at the same time, I want to say we're defining our own cuisine. We are not just traditional Chinese. We never say we only focus on that. We may be [of] Chinese origin, but we're here in America. We've created an American Chinese cuisine that exists on its own level."
"I don't mind people challenging me on authenticity," he says. But he charges back with a simple answer to his disputants: "We are absolutely authentic to our own brand and cuisine."