Walking through the frozen aisle of any Trader Joe’s store, there’s one product that seems to almost have a halo around it, beckoning shoppers with its promises of a quick, tasty dinner: the infamous Orange Chicken. Lauded by many as one of Trader Joe’s most prized products, this orange chicken often finds its way into the shopping carts of loyal customers and first-time shoppers alike. But why? What is it about this particular item that makes it so coveted? Today, we dive deep into the world of Trader Joe’s Frozen Orange Chicken.
If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you know that I love Asian food so anytime I can get something from the frozen section at Trader Joe’s, I will review it. I really loved the Trader Joe’s Steamed Soup Dumplings but hated the Trader Joe’s’ Beef Pho. So, it’s definitely hit or miss at Trader Joe’s.
Let’s start by stating the obvious: this is, fundamentally, deep-fried chicken chunks smothered in a sauce. And not just any sauce, but one that’s unabashedly and overwhelmingly sweet. But, of course, simplicity doesn’t automatically denote inferiority. After all, some of the world’s best dishes revolve around straightforward ingredients.
So, the question is, does the Orange Chicken from Trader Joe’s manage to elevate these simple components into a gourmet experience?
I love fried chicken like the next person and then smothering it in a nice sweet and sour sauce kicks in all the primal brain functions for eating fat, salty, and sweet.
Upon opening the bag, you’re greeted with frozen, battered chicken pieces that are reminiscent of any generic frozen nugget or tender. There’s nothing particularly remarkable about them at first glance.
The magic, as one might argue, is in the accompanying sauce packet. When combined and cooked as per the instructions, the meal takes its final form: a glistening, aromatic dish that undoubtedly appeals to the eyes.
The Trader Joe’s Mandarin Orange Chicken comes in a bag, frozen. It’s basically frozen, deep fried pieces of chicken, and inside the bag are two more bags of sauce that are frozen. You can make it in two different ways, in the oven (or air fryer) or on the stovetop. Since it was more than I could eat in one sitting I made it both ways over a couple of days.
I’ll say the oven method is better and probably better for you since you don’t need to add any more oil. So you bake the chicken pieces in the oven and then when they are hot and crispy, you toss them in a skillet with the sauce until they are coated with sauce. Then serve.
Here is the rub for me. These are basically KFC popcorn chicken with some hot and sour sauce poured over them! But stay with me, I’m not dissing them! Like I said before, I love fried chicken and the Trader Joe’s Mandarin Orange Chicken is pretty good for what it is. What it isn’t is authentic Chinese food.
The difference between what I had at Wild Ginger and Trader Joe’s is night and day. The Wild Ginger rendition was very well executed. The breading was not crunchy, but soft and pillowy but in a good way. The sauce was more orangey and you could taste the spice and orange. I didn’t get much orange in the Trader Joe’s version.
Texture-wise, the deep-fried chicken provides a satisfying crunch. It’s not gourmet by any stretch, but it’s not meant to be. It serves as a vessel for the sauce, and in that role, it functions adequately.
However, the sauce – oh, the sauce – is where things take a turn. It’s sweet. Horribly sweet. The name “Orange Chicken” might evoke images of a subtle, zesty glaze delicately balancing the sweet and savory, perhaps with a touch of tanginess from the citrus. But Trader Joe’s interpretation leans heavily into the sweet spectrum, almost bordering on syrupy. There’s an overwhelming sense that sugar is the main player here, with orange taking a backseat role. Some might find this cloying sweetness off-putting, especially if expecting a more nuanced flavor profile.
It had a good amount of heat though, which I appreciated. Also Mandarin Orange Chicken is a Whole 30 nightmare. Breaded chicken in a sweet sauce and then served with white rice. It’s enough to turn you into a diabetic!
So, if there are clear criticisms about this product, why is it Trader Joe’s most popular item?
The answer lies in the combination of convenience, nostalgia, and the power of branding.
- Convenience: In our fast-paced lives, there’s a growing demand for food that’s both quick to prepare and delicious. Trader Joe’s Orange Chicken checks both boxes. Within minutes, you have a dish that’s ready to be served, making weekday dinners a breeze.
- Nostalgia: For many, the flavor profile might remind them of guilty pleasure fast-food versions of orange chicken they’ve had in the past. It’s comfort food, reminiscent of simpler times and carefree meals.
- Branding: Trader Joe’s, as a brand, has cultivated a loyal following. Their products often come with a stamp of trust and quality. Shoppers are inclined to try, and even love, what Trader Joe’s offers simply because of the brand’s reputation.
In conclusion, the Orange Chicken from Trader Joe’s is a perplexing product. While its overly sweet sauce might not be everyone’s cup of tea, it has managed to capture the hearts of many. It stands as a testament to the fact that popularity doesn’t always equate to gourmet or complex. Sometimes, it’s the simplest pleasures, even with their flaws, that win the day. Whether you’re a fan or a critic, one thing’s for sure: Trader Joe’s Frozen Orange Chicken is here to stay, reigning supreme in the world of quick-fix dinners.
So, having said all that, I am going to rate these 6 bells!
For the Chicken
OVEN. Preheat oven to 400°F degrees for 10
minutes. Place chicken pieces on a baking sheet.
Bake for 18-20 minutes (oven temperatures vary),
until crisp and golden.
SKILLET. Heat 1/4 cup of cooking oil in a large
skillet. Add chicken pieces. Cook 8-10 minutes,
turning regularly to evenly heat chicken pieces until
crisp and golden.
For the Sauce
MICROWAVE. Pour sauce into microwave safe
bowl. Microwave for 1 to 2 minutes until sauce
becomes hot. Toss well with heated chicken pieces and serve.
SAUCE PAN. Open the packet and pour the sauce into a
small saucepan. Heat on low heat until warm.
Battered chicken dark meat chunks (chicken dark meat, water, corn starch, flour [unbleached enriched wheat flour, barley flour, niacin, iron, thiamine mononitrate, riboflavin, folic acid], whole eggs, vegetable oil, salt, white pepper, green onion, garlic, ginger). sauce (sugar, water, vinegar, light soy sauce [soybean, water, salt, wheat flour], modified food starch, dark soy sauce [soybean, water, straw mushroom extractives, salt, wheat flour]. garlic, green onions, ginger white pepper, sake, mandarin orange peel, orange juice, red chile), and soybean oil.