With the announcement that Jollibee is slated to replace Chris N Pitts in Anaheim came a few xenophobic comments, not just here, but on other blogs. The irony, of course, is that Jollibee is more American than Filipino.
Take a gander at the menu and it's as if you're looking at a hyper-realized collection of our own fast-food diet. Here you can chase your burgers with not only fries, but golden-battered drumsticks of fried chicken and plump hot dogs. Jollibee is nothing if not an echo of our own culture reflected back to us in a Filipino-accented fast-food feedback loop.
I went back to the Jollibee in Cerritos recently to get breakfast (more on that later), and saw a wide-screen TV directly above the registers continuously playing a slickly-produced marketing video that wouldn't be out of place wedged between American prime time sitcoms.
These are the same kind of slow-motion close-up shots American fast-food companies have been using on us for years. Fried chicken pieces splash-land in gravy. Steam plumes seductively rise up from a mound of spaghetti. Dew-freckled tomatoes slowly being sliced. And there's that mascot, a cartoon bumblebee dressed in the same color scheme as Ronald McDonald: red, gold and white.
None of this is by accident. During its infancy, its founder looked upon our fast food brands (McDonald's, KFC, et al) and studied them, learned from them, then repeated the formula back home. It has since become the biggest food company in the Philippines and actually bested both McDonald's and KFC on their home turf.
In fact, Jollibee became so big, it gobbled up just about every other competitor in the Philippines, including Red Ribbon, a bakery I regard as slightly better than that other Filipino giant, Goldilocks. Red Ribbon will be part of the Jollibee store in Anaheim, most likely operating out of the same counter as they already do in Chino.
So what's good to eat there? At Red Ribbon, the thing to get is any cake that contains the word “mango”. The smallest is the mango roll, made of the same chiffon cake they use for the bigger floor models, rolled up into a log that sandwich layers of mango-laced frosting. Its sweetness comes more from the fruit than the sugar. Graduates of this mango roll, or should I say addicts, can move on to the sheet cake version, which can feed an entire office. Other cakes straddle familiar turf of chocolate this and Black Forest that. And then there are those that feature macapuno (young coconut) and ube (purple yam)
Red Ribbon also serves savory dishes, including teriyaki bowls that seem like they were added as a second thought, and a version of pancit palabok, a street dish I liken to the Filipino equivalent of pad thai, though it's really nothing like it.
It's a plate of jiggly, glassy rice noodles smothered with an annatto-colored pork-flavored savory gravy. The dish is finished with sprinkles of crumbled crispy pork rinds, hard boiled eggs and scallions. Before you eat, it is customary, nay, necessary, to sprinkle on a few drops of lemon juice (traditionally a tropical lime called calamansi is used) to cut through the richness. And since this is fast food, the lemon juice, as you might expect, comes in little plastic satchels.
Jollibee does a less greasy, and actually, a better version of pancit palabok–what they call Palabok Fiesta. After dribbling on the lemon juice, you mix it up to distribute the sauce so that it coats every strand. The flavors are simple, direct, decidedly homey…if you come from a home that speaks Tagalog.
Outside of Jollibee, you'll see the dish commonly served in big communal trays at Filipino gatherings, and on the streets of Manila.
The second reason I visit Jollibee is the silogs. What are silogs? It is a breakfast that contains some breakfast meat, some garlic fried rice and some egg. Substitute the meat for bacon and the rice for toast, and it's the typical egg, protein, and starch-rich breakfast that the father of PR, Edward Bernays, convinced Americans to eat by the metric ton on behalf of his clients, the bacon producers.
You won't, however, see bacon or Jimmy Dean sausages. Herewith is a cheat sheet of Jollibee's roster of Filipino breakfast meats.
Bangus = deep fried milkfish belly
Corned beef = corned beef (of the canned and hashed variety)
Longganisa = a sweet and fatty Filipino pork sausage
Spam = Spam
Tapa = cured beef akin to jerky with a dominant sweet, sugary flavor
Tocino = pork cured with annatto, sugar, and saltpeter to a red burnish
If I had one complaint about Jollibee's silogs, it's that they used to do their eggs sunny-side up, not as an omelet as they do now. It makes a big difference. Yes, the march toward streamlining operations (read: cutting corners) pervades through this organization as it does any other. And like any other fast food restaurant, you are just as likely to encounter seasonally-employed teenagers that will occasionally bungle your order.
I haven't yet justified ordering a burger. I found out long ago that their fried chicken is just fried chicken. But before you balk that their spaghetti has shredded cheddar-type cheese and cut-up hot dogs in it, think about what an Italian would think of how a million Americans eat their spaghetti: drowned with a jar of Ragu, or worse, out of a can of Chef Boyardee.
Before becoming an award-winning restaurant critic for OC Weekly in 2007, Edwin Goei went by the alias “elmomonster” on his blog Monster Munching, in which he once wrote a whole review in haiku.