Whenever I go to a major shopping mall, it’s usually to return something I bought online, and I time my visit with the lowest traffic, close to closing time … or dinnertime. Because no matter what business brings me to the mall, I’ll always make a beeline for the most important consumer decision of the day: chicken teriyaki or bourbon chicken?
On Long Island, I grew up on these often warring samples. They were handed out aggressively back then, with hawkers eagerly passing out bites of chicken on little toothpicks with the immense confidence that if you tried it, you’d buy it. And as I graduated from mallrat to an adult who could, you know, afford to buy food, I learned they weren’t wrong. After years of their conditioning, I experience a Pavlovian response to sugar-sauce chicken, all sticky and rich.
So yeah, when I heard that Panda Express was branching out with a new Blazing Bourbon Chicken at only 50 locations nationwide and that six test locations were in the American Chinese food desert that is Atlanta, I sure as shit jumped on the chance to taste it and report back.
What is bourbon chicken?
Panda Express calls this a “Southern classic” in the press release. Having only experienced it in mall food courts, I associate this dish with char-grilled boneless, skinless dark meat chicken swimming in a dark, soy-based, ultra-sweet, medium-viscosity sauce that tastes much more of sugar than bourbon of any kind.
Much to my surprise, it actually does have Southern roots. It’s a Cajun-themed dish allegedly named after Bourbon Street in New Orleans, where I have never even seen it on a menu, despite having lived in that city for half a decade. It’s also classified as American Chinese, which tracks. As Woks of Life aptly puts it, though, it’s really neither—it’s “an American creation, fusing multiple cultures in a particular time and place,” making it as “authentic” as General Tso’s.
All of that makes Panda Express, the most well-known mass producer of American Chinese food, the perfect brand to usher in a new interpretation. And calling it a new interpretation is an understatement, since the new Blazing Bourbon Chicken resembled no version of of the dish I’d ever had before.
Panda Express’ Blazing Bourbon Chicken, explained
There are a few things Panda Express chose to do differently with its Blazing Bourbon Chicken. The first is commercializing and capitalizing on trends, a particular skill of this California-based fast food chain. The lede on this rollout is that it’s a collaboration with Hot Ones, a wildly successful YouTube series that challenges celebrities to eat hot wings as they’re being interviewed. Hot Ones has had a busy couple of years full of partnerships, including collaborations with Reebok, Hot Pockets, and Shake Shack.
For Panda’s unique take, flame-grilled chicken chunks are swapped out for crispy, breaded boneless dark meat chicken, not unlike what you’ll find as the base of the now ubiquitous Orange Chicken that Panda Express invented. According to chef Adrian Lok, Culinary Innovation Lead at Panda, these decisions were fully intentional—it’s not meant to be an expected version of bourbon chicken.
“We developed a new crispy chicken inspired by Taiwanese popcorn chicken,” Lok explains, the better to “gather heat” for the brand’s spiciest dish to date.
There are also added vegetables in this bourbon chicken—another first in my experience. And Panda steers hard into the “swicy” trend, tossing the chicken and veggies in a soy sauce, honey, and garlic blend with at least a dash of real bourbon (allegedly) and the signature Hot Ones Last Dab Apollo hot sauce. Then right before it hits the display line, it gets a sprinkle of sesame seeds on top.
All of these elements are unheard of. Never have I ever had a spicy option for bourbon chicken, much less one already bathed in hot sauce. In other words, we can throw away everything we thought we knew about bourbon chicken. Per Lok, the brand spent two years of research and development to turn the dish upside-down for a “unique spin” on “regional American Chinese specialty dishes in the Southern U.S.”
What does the new Panda Express Blazing Bourbon Chicken taste like?
For this taste test, I got to skip the hassle of the mall I so strongly associated with bourbon chicken—a major plus. I went to a fancy, super-modern free-standing Panda Express in Kennesaw, a suburb northwest of Atlanta. It was sparkling clean and spanking new; as soon as I pulled up, I thought, Oh, it makes sense that a new menu item is launching here instead of an ancient food court.
When I arrived at the end of dinner rush, we were down to the last dregs of Blazing Bourbon Chicken and new batches were being fired up. I opted to wait for the fresh batch, and in the meantime I ordered my other food court must, chicken teriyaki, plus some sides I was told I’d need to dampen the heat of this Hot Ones collab.
Sure, I thought skeptically, having been through many fast food “hot” challenges (chicken sandwiches and more chicken sandwiches, Diablos and ghost peppers galore) with tastebuds fully intact and barely scalded. But when I saw the coarsely chopped dried chili peppers sprinkled throughout the dish—peppers that were not disclosed in the announcements—I felt a faint spark of hope. Sure enough, that spark turned into a flame when, in true Chinese takeout style, I dug right into the paper container and felt the heat as I chomped into a pepper on my first bite.
If you’re familiar with Sichuan food, which uses dried hot peppers, you’ll recognize the slight burn these capsicums lend to the sauce they’re tossed in, and the bold, smoky heat you get with direct contact. What I personally love about the use of these chilis is the choose-your-own-adventure element: They’re big enough to be conveniently avoidable if you’re sensitive to spice, and dry enough that their heat doesn’t take over the sauce. You can opt in, scale back, whatever. Or at least that was easy to do with my fresh batch, since the peppers only had a 15-minute car ride to seep into the sauce. I imagine that a batch sitting at the restaurant for a while might grow increasingly spicy.
Speaking of that car ride, I was impressed that the chicken managed to stay crisp until I got it home. It wasn’t overly breaded, as I’ve complained about with Panda’s Orange Chicken and Honey Walnut Shrimp. The fresh green bell peppers and onions were also crisp, more on the raw side than crisp-tender. Personally, I didn’t mind that; the pepper in this state was a refreshing way to take some edge off the heat, and the bite of the half-cooked onions helped cut through the richness of the titular bourbon sauce. Which brings us to what might be the most important component: the sauce, which, true to the marketing, really is unique to Panda Express.
Imagine a bourbon-laced Southern barbecue sauce, slightly smoky but not too sweet. Then add a healthy dose of soy sauce flavor to it, enough to thin out the consistency one would expect of a barbecue sauce, but not so much that saltiness jumps to the forefront. Then layer in the chili oil extracted from the dried peppers, just enough to slowly creep heat onto the outer edges of your lips as you go in for more. Forget that there’s hot sauce in there since it’s completely camouflaged, then remind yourself that sesame seeds are more for decoration than flavor. That’s the sauce.
There was plenty of it, so I ended up pouring it out onto a plate so that my last bites wouldn’t be completely doused. But even with this measure, by the end of the meal I was a saucy, sticky mess with a half-numb mouth. I was also very satisfied being in that state.
Should you buy the new Blazing Bourbon Chicken at Panda Express?
So, is Panda’s Blazing Bourbon Chicken better than old-school bourbon chicken from the mall food court? It’s not an apples-to-apples comparison. In this dish, Panda Express really did create something new and different. It’s much more multidimensional than the majority of the chain’s menu staples, which tend to go heavy on the sugar and either soy or oyster sauce, a true fusion of American and Chinese comfort food. But if the question is “Would I order this again?” then the answer is a resounding “yes.” Bring the heat.
And if you want to join me, do it before January 2, 2024. In addition to Atlanta, the Blazing Bourbon Chicken is now available at select locations in Illinois, Indiana, Texas, Arizona, California, Virginia, New York, Washington, and Washington, DC. The manager revealed to me that the chicken is already the number 3 best-seller at the location I visited, just behind the Orange Chicken and Chicken Teriyaki.
I looks like Panda might have a hit on its (sticky) hands. With Blazing Bourbon Chicken, perhaps the chain has introduced yet another new American Chinese dish to the zeitgeist. Here’s hoping.