Kitchn Love Letters

This $5 Freezer Find Is Trader Joe’s Most Popular Item of All Time

updated Nov 10, 2023
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Commack, NY, USA, 7.20.23 - Snack, cookies, and frozen food in an aisle at Trader Joe's. A sign says Appetizers Right Here with an arrow pointing down.
Credit: Jaclyn Vernace/Shutterstock

No matter how you feel about it, there’s no denying that the most popular item sold at Trader Joe’s is its Mandarin Orange Chicken. I used to work for Trader Joe’s, so I know firsthand how wild the frenzy can get about this frozen delight. In the South, where my particular store is, some folks would travel up to 200 miles just to stock up for the month on all of their frozen standbys (cooler bags and ice packs in tow!), which often meant bags upon bags of Mandarin Orange Chicken.

As for me, there are certain Trader Joe’s items that hold such specific taste memories for me — and Mandarin Orange Chicken is one of the most vivid. It was my college standby meal, for when the devil on my shoulder said, “We could just get Panda Express, couldn’t we?” and the angel on my shoulder said, “Saving money is also really cool, you know.” In this case, the Mandarin Orange Chicken was the perfect compromise, although I think my post-grad spin on this frozen item just might be even better. 

Credit: Mackenzie Filson

What’s So Great About Trader Joe’s Mandarin Orange Chicken?

Much like the Chinese American takeout classic it emulates, the Trader Joe’s Mandarin Orange Chicken has breaded nuggets of dark meat chicken that crisp up to a golden-brown in the oven (or, better yet, air fryer) for eight to 10 minutes. When tossed with the accompanying sweet-spicy-sticky orange sauce, it’s a great break-in-case-of-emergency meal to keep on hand when your DoorDash/Uber Eats/Postmates apps start sending you the siren song of coupons and alerts. Served with fluffy rice, roasted broccoli (which you can even roast alongside your chicken), and a sprinkling of green onions and chili crunch for a meal that’ll have you go, “Takeout, who?”

Full disclaimer: Trader Joe’s serving sizes are sort of a punchline all their own. This bag says it serves five, but for me it solidly serves my hunger levels at a solid 2.5 servings (two entrées plus a little cheeky bowl for when midnight snack time comes around), so proceed with those portions in mind if you’re looking to serve the whole fam. 

Credit: Mackenzie Filson

What’s the Best Way to Use Trader Joe’s Mandarin Orange Chicken?

On their own, the nuggets are flavored pretty neutrally, so they are a great open-access protein for all kinds of riffing, which I love doing when I want a sauce that’s less on the sweet side (and it is pretty sweet!). I often use it as a shortcut for fried and breaded chicken dishes, like brushing it with a Nashville chicken-style spicy oil for mini sliders and mimicking other takeout favorites by mixing up a Korean-inspired gochujang BBQ sauce to coat it and serve alongside plenty of banchan.

If I really want to put dinner on easy mode, I’ll toss it with another sauce like Buffalo, honey mustard, or a sticky BBQ (like Sweet Baby Ray’s) for throwing into a wrap or topping an easy workday-friendly lunch salad that my college self would be very impressed by. 

Find it in stores: Trader Joe’s Mandarin Orange Chicken, $4.99 for 22 ounces

Have you tried Trader Joe’s iconic Mandarin Orange Chicken? Tell us about it in the comments below.