Kao, now the Panda's executive chef for product innovation, first cooked up his orange chicken at a Los Angeles Panda Express in the late '80s. The chef, born in China and raised in Taiwan, was inspired by the deep-fried chicken of the country where he grew up and the flavors he encountered while helping launch Panda Express in Hawaii.
He wanted to create a dish that gave diners hearty portions of meat and a cooking method that would keep it intact, moist and juicy. He tweaked its mix of sweet, spicy and sour flavors -- there is orange juice in there -- based on feedback from customers. Once word got out, the rest of the Panda Express shops wanted in. Orange chicken went nationwide in 1987, and now it's as ubiquitous as General Tso's.
According to the chain, half of diners at Panda Express's nearly 1,800 locations make orange chicken part of their meal. That equates to about 285,000 customers per day, adding up to 70 million -- MILLION -- pounds of the brightly hued dish served in a year.
It's about 69,999,999 pounds too many for Grace Young, the stir-fry expert and cookbook author who grew up immersed in the culinary traditions of her Chinese immigrant parents.
"I've seen it," Young said of orange chicken, "and never had an interest in it."
To be fair, Young is not really interested in much of what's being served at any Chinese restaurant in America, fast food or otherwise. She decries a lack of quality ingredients, attributable to what she said is one major problem: "Chinese food is perceived as cheap food."
She said orange chicken as most of us know it has echoes of a traditional Sichuan dish, whose name can be translated as dried tangerine peel chicken. In that version, marinated chicken is stir-fried in a wok with rehydrated peel. The dish may include dried chili peppers, fresh ginger and numbing Sichuan peppercorns. The thinner sauce features rice wine, soy sauce and sugar.
In other words, not like what most of us are familiar with.
But the Panda Express dish -- a Chinese-American interpretation, Kao and his company are quick to point out -- has its fans, including those who could be classified as serious students of Chinese cuisine.
"Where?" he blurted out. "I'm going to be in line." (The truck and its surrounding lounge will be at the corner of Wisconsin Avenue and M Street NW, chef.)
Drewno, a self-professed Panda Express die-hard, has been cooking more high-minded Chinese fare at the Source since 2007. He has traveled and eaten around China, trying the version Young described, which he called cleaner and simpler. But he still has a warm, saucy place in his heart for the Americanized orange chicken.
Panda Express had been a staple of Drewno's pre-flight meals at Reagan National Airport. About two weeks ago, he was dismayed to discover that the Panda had disappeared from the Terminal B/C area. It was a victim of the airport's overhaul of food offerings.
He fondly recalled that when he was growing up and his mom was out of town, his dad offered him two takeout options: Pizza Hut or orange chicken from the local Chinese spot (you know the kind).
Drewno said he and his staff will even cook their own riff on orange chicken for the "family meal" they eat together. And you better believe they break out the hot oil and batter.
"There's only one way to make orange chicken, and it's fried," he said.
The Panda Express Orange Chicken Love truck will be in Georgetown on Sunday at the corner of Wisconsin Avenue and M St. NW from 1 to 5 p.m.