Panda Express hasn’t always been the most vegetarian-friendly, quick-service restaurant. The chain’s most iconic dish is chicken-based, plus it has practically every other meat-based protein you could want: honey walnut shrimp, firecracker beef, and teriyaki chicken sliced to order. But that hasn’t stopped the Chinese-American chain from trying.
Last year, Panda Express tested a vegetarian version of its famous orange chicken using Beyond Meat, which was received with enthusiasm and sold out at most of the test locations. “As the first national Asian restaurant concept to serve Beyond Meat with the launch of Beyond The Original Orange Chicken last year, we saw just how great the demand is for innovative plant-based dishes,” says Jimmy Wang, Panda Restaurant Group’s director of culinary innovation. To meet that demand, Panda Express is testing two new vegetarian options.
What are the two new vegetarian entrees at Panda Express?
The two new plant-based entrees at Panda Express are Mapo Tofu and String Beans and Beef—both of which are crafted with crumbles of Beyond Beef. “Mapo tofu is a classic Sichuan dish that has global appeal and pairs perfectly with our existing menu items, like white rice and side of Super Greens,” Wang explains. “Panda’s origin is rooted in Sichuan cuisine since our founder Andrew Cherng’s father, Master Chef Ming Tsai Cherng, specialized in this type of cuisine, which heavily influenced the menu at the first Panda restaurant, Panda Inn.” The green beans are a new take on a traditional stir-fried dish that usually calls for minced pork.
How do the Mapo Tofu and Beyond String Beans taste?
If you’ve ever had the single vegetarian option at Panda Express—the eggplant tofu—you already know how flavorful their plant-based food can be. These two new entrees are no different.
Let’s start with the Mapo Tofu, a classic Chinese comfort food. Cubes of firm tofu are simmered in a spicy, garlic-laced gravy with pops of savory Beyond Beef and scallions. The umami from fermented bean paste is rich and aromatic and mellows out the heat from chilies. This Mapo Tofu is a bit runnier than other versions I’ve had, and perhaps slightly sweeter, but that doesn’t negate the fact that it is absolutely delicious. I tried it served over a bed of white rice, which really allows for the tofu to shine. I think with chow mein for fried rice, the flavors might clash or just be too salty of a meal.
Jeff Lin, the general manager of the Pasadena-based innovation kitchen where these new items are being tested, shares that he eats a bowl of Mapo Tofu every shift and finds it “so comforting.”
The string beans with Beyond Beef are also worth trying. Although the dish may not feel as exciting or innovative—especially because Panda already has a string bean dish—I was still taken aback by how flavorful the entree was. The string beans were bright green, snappy, and well-seasoned. In fact, they were spicier than the Mapo Tofu with ample amounts of garlic and crisped Beyond Meat. A sweet and savory garlic sauce ties the whole thing together. It is certainly more fragrant and exciting to eat than the String Bean Chicken, which although is a classic, feels muted in comparison.
Will Panda Express’s new vegetarian options be added to the nationwide menu?
The main issue is that these two new vegetarian options are being tested only at the Innovation Kitchen, and the last day to try them is February 23. “We’re continuously looking for ways to innovate and provide new offerings to our guests by utilizing the Innovation Kitchen to test these dishes first,” Wang says. “After creation, we work to gather insight first and then determine if it makes sense for a potential future roll out.”
So there’s no confirmation if—or when—these two new items will grace Panda’s permanent, nationwide menu. That being said, Wang shares that it is “important to diversify our plant-based offerings with fresh vegetables and plant proteins,” which feels like a hopeful nod in the right direction.
These two new entrees are some of the best things I’ve ever eaten at a Panda Express and I could see myself returning again and again to these delightfully spicy and savory dishes. I hope that people at Panda locations throughout the U.S. will get to see for themselves, too.