Jollibee is the undisputed king of fast food in The Philippines. Despite Ronald McDonald and his cutthroat crew coming ashore on the island nation more than 35 years ago, the happy little bee has outsold and outgrown the burger Goliath at every turn. As a matter of fact, Jollibee’s market share is greater than all its foreign competitors combined.
The Jollibee corporate juggernaut is also home to other immensely popular local brands including, Magnolia Ice Cream, Chowking, Red Ribbon Bakery, Greenwich Pizza, and Mang Inasal. Counting all brands, the jovial bee operates over 2,000 restaurants in the Philippines compared to under 500 locations for McDonald’s. In light of their tremendous success, I had no other choice but to taste the gleeful bee’s food for myself.
Jollibee Serves It Locallicious
When McDonald’s arrived in the Philippines in 1981, Jollibee was just starting to build steam as a restaurant brand. The 6 year old company had just grown to 10 locations. The company might have been tempted to change their menu and copy the American competitor, instead they doubled down and kept focusing on local Filipino food and tastes. The wisdom of this culinary decision is easy to see today by visiting the website for McDonald’s Philippines. You’ll find several dishes not offered in the United States, food items which have been staples of Jollibee’s menu since the beginning. It was the American burger chain that had to copy its competitor to survive, not the happy little bee.
It’s So Juicylicious!
Thankfully, I live near two of Jollibee’s 32 US locations; thus allowing me to try the authentic taste of Filipino fast food without traveling to Asia. I visited on a Sunday afternoon and found the small restaurant packed with diners happily enjoying their meals. The menu is large and offers options you won’t find at American fast food places. I knew I had to try the spaghetti and fried chicken, I also ordered a hot dog and two of their small slider sandwiches.
Jollibee loves to use superlatives in their marketing, and I have to admit that the food is Crispylicious and very tasty. It is definitely fast food and there is plenty of grease to go around. You won’t find any vegetable oil here, everything has the distinct taste of being cooked in animal fat just like grammy used to make.
The food also surprised me by invoking memories of childhood meals. Eating the spaghetti with little cubes of pork reminded me of the kind of food my parents served me as a young child in the late 70’s and early 80’s. The hamburger steaks covered in mushrooms and gravy are also dinner staples from my childhood. I can only guess that the Philippines’ past as a US territory and military base lead to this shared culinary history. Regardless, Americans of a certain age will recognize some menu items as dishes from their childhood.
Crispylicious and Spaghettiest
In Asia, fast food means fried chicken. It’s no surprise then that one of Jollibee’s signature dishes is Chickenjoy, the most ‘Crispylicious and Juicylicious‘ of all fried chicken. This is the real deal, the type of chicken most American chains are afraid to make. It has a golden color that can only be achieved by frying it in lard with the skin still on. The skin crunches hard as you bite it and grease rolls down your chin. The flavor is thick and meaty. It tastes nothing like KFC. This is the type of fried chicken your grandparents or great-grandparents made on the farm. In case you need even more meat flavor, it comes with a side of chicken gravy which is of course, ‘Gravylicious.’
Spaghetti is a staple Filipino comfort food and the go to dish for children’s parties. Jollibee serves mountains of their Jolly Spaghetti daily; declared to be the ‘Cheesiest, Meatiest, and Spaghettiest.’ Besides the noddles, there is very little of Italian origin in this dish. The sauce is extra sweet from the addition of banana ketchup and contains small pieces of cubed pork. Everything is topped with shredded cheese. It tastes great, but strongly reminds me of kid’s food like Chef Boyardee. My personal tip, pull apart the fried chicken and mix the pieces into the spaghetti. The fatty chicken and skin with the sweet sauce and noodles is the perfect combination.
I’ll Be Back For the Spam
My favorite item by far was the Spam Sandwich. This slider came on a Portuguese sweet bread roll which had been slapped on a hot grill and then slathered in mayonnaise. A perfectly fried slice of spam was then gently place in the middle. I’m not a huge fan of spam, but this sandwich tasted so amazing, I will be ordering it again.
Jollibee may not be for everyone. The food is unapologetically Filipino and may on first taste seem strange to the American palate. Give it a try though, and you will quickly discover very traditional American dishes, fried chicken, spaghetti, hamburgers, and hot dogs, presented in exciting new ways with deliciously different flavors. I know I’m already planning my second trip; I haven’t tried any of the deserts yet!