Have you been to a branch of the very popular Filipino crispy chicken chain Jollibee? And if not, why not?
There are more than 1,200 branches worldwide — and 28 here in California, including the San Fernando Valley branch in a mall filled with restaurants on Woodman Avenue in Panorama City. It’s not just a Filipino version of KFC. If anything, it’s a Disneyland reinterpretation. Only in this case, rather than there being a mouse…there is a bee.
And, unsurprisingly, Jollibee comes with a backstory that comes straight from Horatio Alger – a true rags-to-riches success story.
It dates back to 1975, when Tony Tan Caktiong and his family opened an ice cream parlor in the Cubao neighborhood of Quezon City. They were poor Chinese immigrants, good at feeding people. And that talent has turned into hot take-out meals, sandwiches and ice cream. In 1978, hot dishes were so popular that ice cream was dropped. Crispy, crunchy hot chicken became the dish of choice, under the name Jollibee – a cute logo that quickly became one of the Philippines’ most recognizable mascots.
By the end of 1978, there were seven branches in Metro Manila, with the first franchise opening in the Santa Cruz section of Manila in 1979. The first McDonald’s opened in the Philippines in 1981. But around this time , Jollibee was so well established as a local specialty, nothing could dislodge it from the mountaintop of local fast food. And that mountain consisted of a growing world of new dishes – each with its own mascot.
Along with Jollibee, the Chickenjoy combination plates were represented by Chickee. Lady Moo’s milkshakes. Mr. Yum’s Yumburger. Twirlie’s sundaes. Popo’s fries. The Jolly Spaghetti by Hetty. The Jollibee channel flooded the Philippines with “cute”. And this “cute”, being local, was adopted, adored, loved – and by 1986 was spreading overseas, all over the world, a taste of home for Filipinos abroad that made Tony Tan Caktiong a billionaire.
And a visit to the Panorama City agency makes it possible to understand why. The bee is everywhere! On the cups! In profile on wallpaper — so recognizable that facial features aren’t even necessary! On bins of chicken pieces, ranging from individual size to extended family! In an oversized Jollibee statue in front of the restaurant, waving you in! (And it’s worth noting that, like Mickey, Jollibee wears white gloves, with one thumb and three fingers. Along with oversized yellow shoes. And a bow tie!)
So, how’s the chicken? It is, as the wallpaper tells us, “Criispylicious” and “Juicylicious”. The breading doesn’t stay crispy for long, so it’s best to dig in while the Chickenjoy is fresh from the fryer – flavorful crust, chicken nicely moist inside, with a hint of pepper, but surprisingly little spice for a Filipino object of desire. For a nation known for being hot and hotter, it’s friendly to a world of taste buds.
The simplest of the meals – the two-piece Chickenjoy with a side – comes with a choice of fries, mashed potatoes, buttered corn, steamed rice and the option of a side of gravy , which is a bit salty and a bit of no need.
Chickenjoy meals grow with the addition of more pieces, more sides and bigger and bigger buckets.
It is possible to add an order of Jolly Spaghetti, which one online site describes as “legendary”. I guess – he mixes spaghetti with ground meat, hot dog slices and a sweet sauce made from banana ketchup. It looks like something a 6 year old might make, adding random items from the fridge. It is a major festive dish in the Philippines. Well…it’s filling up.
The most interesting of the Yumburger selections is the Aloha, which is topped with a slice of pineapple. But hey, I don’t go to Jollibee for burgers. Maybe for Jolly Spaghetti, but not for burgers. I’m mostly here for the chicken. And, frankly, the bee.
I can’t resist cuter than the rest of us. I treasure Mickey’s memories of my first visit to the Magic Kingdom many years ago; I still have my Mickey hat, with my name sewn on it. I’m tempted to get one of the many Jollibee T-shirts. The ones with the bee on them are nice. But there is one that says, in lower case: “yumburger&chickenjoy&burgersteak&jollyspaghetti”. It’s so special. And tasty too!
Merrill Shindler is a freelance food critic based in Los Angeles. Email [email protected]
- Rating: 2.5 stars
- Address: Panorama Woodman Center, 8261 Woodman Ave, Panorama City
- Information: 818-442-9403; www.jollibeefoods.com
- Food: Filipino Fried Chicken at the SF Valley branch of this Filipino fast food phenomenon, offering addictive chicken at more than 1,200 outlets around the world, serving tasty fried chicken – and dominated by a Jolli Bee, such an ubiquitous character that Mickey is at Disneyland. The Jolli Bee is so popular that it even inspired a children’s cartoon show called “Jollitown”.
- When: Breakfast, lunch and dinner, daily
- Details: Soft drink; no reservations
- Prices: About $15 per person
- Suggested dishes: 14 Chickenjoy Assortments ($7.14-$39.59), 2 Chicken Sandwiches ($4.94-$5.49), 3 Jolly Spaghetti Plates & Packets ($4.94-$39.59), 5 Burger Steaks ($6.92-$21.99), 4 Yumburgers ($2.74-$6.59), 5 Sides (28 cents-$2.41)
- Credit card: CM, V
- What do the stars mean: 4 (World class! Worth the trip from anywhere!), 3 (Most excellent, if not outstanding. Worth the trip from anywhere in Southern California.), 2 (A great place to go for a meal. Worth the trip from anywhere in the neighborhood.) 1 (If you’re hungry and it’s nearby, but don’t get stuck in traffic.) 0 (Honestly not worth it write on it.)