A Filipino fast-food behemoth is gearing up to take over the US.
It seems there’s a Jollibee on every corner in the Philippines — in fact, it’s one of the few chains that has successfully maintained market dominance over McDonald’s in its home country. Even as McDonald’s ramps up its Asian expansion, Jollibee has held its own with 978 locations compared to McDonald’s 521.
Now, Jollibee’s is coming for McDonald’s on its home turf. The chain currently has 36 locations in the US and is opening new restaurants in states like Illinois and Florida this year.
The brand holds a special place in the heart of many Filipino expats. As Jian DeLeon wrote in First We Feast, “For the millions of Filipinos abroad, what Jollibee offers [is] a nostalgic taste of home at a price most of us can swallow.”
We, on the other hand, go in not as Filipino food experts, but as two fast-food loving New Yorkers eager to see how the growing chain compares to the competition.
Jollibee has 36 locations across the US, mostly in California. Luckily, there's one in Woodside, Queens, right off the subway.
The place was packed when we arrived around 1 p.m. The lunch rush was in full swing, and scouting for a seat proved to be quite the task. Fortunately, an employee alerted us as soon as two spots became available.
Ordering was a breeze, though we were a bit thrown by the menu's breadth of options. While we are fast-food connoisseurs, we don't typically see spaghetti served alongside fried chicken and burgers at American chains. The cashier was extremely friendly and accommodating, even when we came back twice to order more items we previously forgot.
Diners seeking a classic Italian-American take on spaghetti will be surprised by Jollibee's version. As is common in the Philippines, the sauce is more sweet than savoury. While it wasn't quite to our taste, it delivered on Jollibee's 'meatiest, cheesiest, spaghettiest' marketing. The sauce is chock-full of ground beef, chunks of ham, and a hot dog-esque sausage. It's a better, sweeter version of elementary school cafeteria spaghetti -- strangely comforting.
One of Jollibee's signature dishes is the 'Chickenjoy' fried chicken, which we ordered as a combo alongside the spaghetti. Taste-wise, the closest chicken chain comparison would be Church's. It's fairly tender, but it lacks a flavorful punch and crunch.
The chicken is available on the bone or in tender form, though Jollibee calls them 'dippers.' As with the chicken on the bone, the chicken itself is of good quality, but more crunch and pep are needed.
What is remarkable, however, is the fiesta palabok noodles. This is a fast-food take on a traditional Filipino noodle dish, consisting of rice noodles covered in a garlicky sauce, crushed pork rinds, shrimp, parsley, and a slice or two of hard-boiled eggs.
This is a garlic lover's dream. There's a richness in flavour, yet the dish avoids feeling heavy or dense. This is something unexpected at any fast-food chain, let alone an American chain like McDonald's, and it's well worth the trip. It's the surf and turf we deserve.
Another menu item you wouldn't find at McDonald's is the burger steak. It's essentially a Salisbury steak with a side of steamed rice. It's unceremoniously slathered in brown gravy and somewhat tasteless mushrooms. It's a tame but safe bet for a fast-food menu -- they're already frying up the burgers, so why not throw some gravy and rice on 'em?
We deeply prefer the patty in a form more familiar to American fast-food fans. Jollibee's Aloha burger marries the best elements of the Whopper and the Big Mac, as well as injecting its own distinct twist: pineapple.
The patty is charred, savoury, and juicy. It could easily go head to head with the flame-grilled Whopper in its Platonic form. There's a special burger sauce that's reminiscent of the iconic Big Mac sauce, but it's slightly sweeter. The bacon and pineapple toppings create a delicious play of salty and sweet.
Together, the patty, sauce, cheese, lettuce, bacon, and pineapple all combine for one harmonious melody of fast-food burger brilliance. This is a burger that can duke it out with the top American contenders -- it's that shockingly good.
It's hard to take a bite out of the mango peach pie without comparing it to McDonald's passionately defended apple pie. However, this comparison will only serve to flatter Jollibee's dessert; it's deliciously fruity without being syrupy sweet, and it deftly avoids the fake peach flavour you expect. And the extra-crispy wonton-style exterior brings a level of textural satisfaction that McDonald's lacks.
The chain's soft serve is simple and elegant, as most soft serve is. We couldn't discern any difference from McDonald's or any chain's icy dessert, but we didn't mind.
The ube pearl cooler is a refreshing take on a traditional Filipino dessert made from purple yams. Yet again, Jollibee's version deftly avoids sugar fatigue by balancing its sweetness. At the bottom rests little black tapioca pearls, adding a chewy dimension to the beverage.
Finally, there's the halo-halo. This legendary Filipino dessert is a multi-level hodgepodge, but it's a masterpiece. On the bottom lies sweetened beans, chickpeas, and jello cubes, followed by shaved ice and evaporated milk.
The dessert is crowned with a jewel-like array of ice cream and flan, making it a prime Instagram target.
While it sounds overwhelming, the cacophony of flavours and textures come together to form a strangely beautiful symphony in a plastic cup.
We left Jollibee feeling ... jolly. With an incredibly kind waitstaff, reasonable prices, and a menu that has both tasty takes on American fast-food classics and dishes that are strong in their own right, Jollibee is everything a fast-food chain should be. We see now why it has reigned supreme in its home country, and we're cheering it on as it expands in the West.
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