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I Tried Panda Express' New Firecracker Shrimp. It's Almost as Good as the Orange Chicken

Almost.

Face it. Everyone goes to Panda Express for one reason and one reason only: that orange chicken.

Sure, you might find "better" orange chicken at a local eatery or some Zagat-rated joint, but frankly, even those beloved places can't hold a candle to Panda's dish. The chain's signature offering is tangy, sweet, delectably crunchy—and, most of all, consistent. Our planet is home to more than 2,200 Panda Express locations. Walk into any one of them and you're going through a gateway to claim the same golden-tinted treasure.

Well, believe it or not, there's now another reason to visit Panda Express. As of yesterday, the chain sells firecracker shrimp.

Earlier this week, I got a chance to try the stuff. To be clear, it doesn't truly achieve the transcendence of Panda's orange chicken. (Nothing can.) But the firecracker shrimp is a worthy addition to the menu—all bold and zesty and packed with complex flavor.

The sauce—an aromatic mix of black beans, chili peppers, garlic, and soy sauce—is itself enough of a draw. But it's the mix of veggies that really makes this dish stand out. The shrimp are tossed in a wok with the sauce and a veritable spring harvest of veggies: crisp green beans, diced bell peppers, whole dried chilis, and crescent-shaped slivers of onion.

Yeah, yeah, I know what you're wondering: Is this stuff spicy? After all, in its traditional incarnation, firecracker shrimp packs a lot of heat. And Panda's version does indeed have a double dose of chili peppers. But for all the anticipation, the dish is surprisingly, disappointingly tame. I didn't catch a verified Scoville rating, but it's safe to say the heat level wavers somewhere on the scale between watered-down Tabasco and fresh cracked pepper.

RELATED: Panda Express' Sichuan Hot Chicken Is a Spice Lover's Delight

Now, to be clear, an absence of heat doesn't mean an absence of flavor. On the contrary, the firecracker shrimp is a well-balanced culinary concoction. It's just not all that spicy. In fact, it's even a little sweet.

It's also relatively nutritious. Each serving size—4.5 ounces, or what you'd get with an "a la carte" order—clocks in at just 110 calories and is loaded up with 11 grams of protein. For comparison, that's the same protein-to-calorie ratio you'd find in a power bar.

There's just one caveat. At the taste test I attended, the firecracker shrimp was made onsite by Jimmy Wang, Panda's head of culinary innovation, and a team of all-star chefs. Each order was prepared with ostensibly fresh, of-the-day ingredients, and whipped up in a kitchen so spacious and well-equipped even Martha Stewart would feel envy. Does the "real" firecracker shrimp—the dish you'd get if you ordered at one of the thousands of traditional locations—taste the same? It's hard to say. For my money, I'd say it's worth a try.

Or you could play things safe and order the orange chicken. And for more insight into the restaurant's offerings, here are The Best and Worst Menu Items at Panda Express.

Ari Notis
Ari is an editor specializing in news and lifestyle. Read more