Some time back, I stopped going to big-chain supermarkets. Our family still buys groceries, yes, but I manage to buy everything I need at Trader Joe’s.
Trader Joe’s doesn’t have everything for everyone, and that’s what makes it so delightful. It offers fewer items for a narrower clientele, but almost every item on its shelves is something that’s reliably delicious, unexpected, and not priced exorbitantly. (Believe it or not, one thing I looked for when we bought our house was how close the nearest Trader Joe’s is located. We now live two miles away from one.)
One of the most popular items at Trader Joe’s has been its Mandarin Orange Chicken. The chicken pieces come battered and fried; all you do is reheat in the oven until crispy, then coat with orange glaze for a dinner on par with Panda Express’s. TJ’s version—it sells for $4.99—has countless fans and for good reason. But I’d like to propose that there's a cook-from-frozen chicken dish at Trader Joe’s that’s even better.
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Its Shiitake Mushroom Chicken is every bit as delicious: Dark meat chicken chunks studded with shiitake mushrooms, green beans, and edamame beans. Its savory sauce is what I’d called generic Chinese stir-fry, a soy sauce-forward glaze with subtle flavors of garlic, ginger, and mushrooms. What’s nice is because it’s not battered and fried like the Mandarin Orange Chicken, this dish has nearly half the calories per serving (180 vs. 320; there’s four servings per bag).
For me, the measure of success is whether it passes my Chinese parents test. The last time they visited, I cooked this up for dinner without telling them it’s from Trader Joe’s. It’s perfectly delicious as is, but I decided to level it up by finishing the dish with a few tablespoons of oyster sauce, along with a generous squirt of Sichuan chili paste. Their comment: This chicken is tender, moist, perfectly cooked. The sauce isn’t cloying, and it’s a good accompaniment with rice.
Then I came clean and told them it was, in fact, from Trader Joe’s. They were so impressed, they’ve subsequently purchased bags of the Shiitake Mushroom Chicken for my 91-year-old grandmother, who needs an easy-to-prepare dinner that tastes sufficiently Chinese. I can count on one hand the number of ready-made dinners that’s under $5 and more delicious than its price suggests.