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Social scientists and business students needn't look further than the Filipino fast-food giant Jollibee to see what our culture has wrought on the other side of the world. The menu at the branch that just opened in Anaheim, OC's unofficial Little Manila, is a hyper-realized collection of our own fast-food diet recited in a Tagalog-accented feedback loop. Burgers in sesame-seed buns are slathered with too much special sauce. Fried chicken can be bought by the bucket. And for dessert, there are old-school deep-fried pocket pies that even McDonald's jettisoned decades ago. If you took away the few Pinoy elements, such as a shake colored purple from a native tuber called ube, one would have to conclude Jollibee is more American than Filipino.
This is no accident. Jollibee's founders looked upon our most successful fast-food brands, studied them, learned from them, then repeated the formula to become the biggest food company in the Philippines. It has since eclipsed McDonald's and KFC there and gobbled up competitors with the zeal of Rockefeller. Dangling above the heads of its newly trained teenage cashiers, an LCD loops slickly produced propaganda video of fried chicken splash-landing in gravy and dew-freckled tomatoes slowly being sliced. In front of the brightly lit store, there's the blank but benevolent stare of its mascot, a life-sized statue of a tuxedoed cartoon bumblebee created to sell the whole idea to the young and impressionable. Notice his uniform uses basic red, gold and white—colors cribbed directly from Ronald McDonald.
Witness also the chain's continual evolution, its desire to assimilate into our culture and entice us with the food that has already made us fat. It won't take you long to realize the only trace of a vegetable here is the lettuce and tomato buried under the burgers. As at its American counterparts, all meals are priced with the assumption you're going to also want a Pepsi-branded soda. Jollibee has even gone to great lengths to de-Pinoy one of the few Filipino dishes on offer. The pancit palabok—hair-thin rice noodles smothered by an annatto-tinted gravy and topped with ground pork, bay shrimp, pulverized chicharron and sliced eggs—used to be called "Fiesta Palabok." It's now rebranded as "Fiesta Noodles" to take the foreign variable out of the equation and to have it fit more snugly with its YumBurgers and ChickenJoys.
601 N. Euclid St., Ste. A
Anaheim, CA 92801
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To eat the Fiesta Noodles, empty into it a few packets of lemon juice, then mix it into a homogeneous mass. The results will look like pad Thai, but taste nothing like it—palabok is porkier by tenfold, but just as delicious. On that note, Jollibee's spaghetti isn't going to taste like the corner trattoria's either. This is pasta and marinara for the sweet-toothed—a Willy Wonka merging of dinner and dessert with cut-up hot dogs thrown in, a melted layer of grated taco cheese for tang, and a sugary tomato sauce that could prove lethal to diabetics. Americans who balk at the bastardization should consider what an Italian might think of Ragú and Chef Boyardee. The Fiesta Noodles or the spaghetti can be ordered with an optional side of a chicken drumstick, but the best way to consume the fried chicken is as a meal with a simple mound of steamed rice. In its spicy version, a latent burn is localized within the bird's golden-fried skin, while the meat beneath is pristinely neutral.
As of press time, the Anaheim Jollibee does not yet offer silogs—Filipino breakfast plates anchored by garlic fried rice, a fried egg, and meats ranging from Spam to a batter-covered tangy filet of fried milkfish. When it starts, expect to see ruddy corned beef, a bulgogi-like beef tapa, a cured-pork product called tocino and longanisa, indigenous Filipino pork sausage. (When I sampled the latter at the already-established Jollibee in Cerritos, it tasted as though it came from Hillshire Farms rather than a Manila barrio.)
Those who find Jollibee panders too much to the American palate should walk a few feet into Red Ribbon, a bakery brand acquired by the corporation in 2005. It's here that Pinoy flavors are delivered undiluted in dishes such as the vegetable-filled crepes of its fresh lumpia; the satisfying, starchy chicken porridge called arroz caldo; and the dinuguan, a complex stew made from the chewy bits of a pig simmered in an inky broth made of the animal's blood and sharpened by vinegar. For dessert, Red Ribbon is unequalled in the delicateness of its cakes, especially the mango chiffon, a not-too-sweet, fluffier-than-cotton confection that varies in size from a jelly roll to a full-on sheet cake that can feed either an entire office or one soon-to-be remorseful American who underestimates its greatness.
This review appeared in print as "'Tis the Season to Jollibee: What to eat and expect at the Filipino fast-food giant's first OC store."