Jollibee: Does it Sting or Sing?

Imagine being told by your single mother that, after years of sending money home to her relatives in the Philippines, you were going to be uprooted from your Burnaby home and be staying in her home country ‘for a while.’

I didn’t know what to think when this was first communicated to me. I was scared; I wasn’t sure how we were going to do it — after all, we were barely getting by here. How were we going to pay for this trip? What about my school work?!

With no say in the matter, I begrudgingly boarded multiple planes and endured 27 hours’ worth of flying to go from everything I knew in Canada, to Japan, to Hong Kong, then Manila, and finally to a province called Kalibo in Aklan.

We spent about a day and a half flying from Canada to the Philippines. When we arrived, I stayed in a home on the mountains, which I believe belonged to my mother’s parents. (Google Maps.)

When I landed in Kalibo, it was the middle of typhoon season. You could be walking in dry streets in flip flops one minute; the next your feet looked like prunes thanks to a sudden burst of rain. There was a bit of a greyish tinge to everything, partially from the dust and partially because I didn’t know what I was getting into…so I was crying. A lot.

I remember finally looking up as we walked through the bustling city. I saw a smiling bee head hanging from a building. ‘I had heard of this place,‘ I told myself, ‘that’s the Jollibee bee.’

I had saved up some money delivering papers for the Burnaby Now, and had brought most of it with me; anything extra I wanted I had to pay for myself. I asked my mom if she wanted to try Jollibee. She scoffed, but I said I was starving. She gave in, and we went inside.

I’ll never be more grateful to have begged for something in my entire life. I immediately compared it to a McDonald’s, and I suddenly felt a bit more comfortable in my new province. This looks familiar, but all so new at the same time.

My first meal was a YumBurger. It was dry, didn’t have a lot of mayo, and the cheese tasted funny, but I was being strategic with my cash. (It must have been about 70 or 80 PHP at the time, which would be about $1.75 CAD today.) However, as I became more familiar with the Jollibee menu, I kept going back to the YumBurger. It reminded me so much of the burgers I’d have with friends after school.

When we finally came back to Canada, I had become obsessed with Jollibee. Anyone who was even curious about this bee was subjected to a verbal essay on its history, an analysis on its overlap with North American culture, and an inadvertent review of every. Single. Dish.

Fast forward more than 14 years later, and that’s what you’re about to get — well, within reason. My husband Jon and I lined up for nearly four hours just to get a taste of the first Jollibee to open in B.C.

I’ve always joked about being the first person in line, but I knew that wasn’t going to happen. I couldn’t line up for fried chicken or burgers at 9 a.m., and let’s face it: I’m on a writing break right now. I’m lazy! I just didn’t feel like being the first person in line. I did, however, want to be one of the first.

I anticipate the line-ups going for at least a couple of weeks, and so you’re probably wondering whether you should line up for this Filipino fast food chain? My not-so-straightforward answer to you is…it depends.

Pineapple Quencher

Price: $3.49

Do not — and I repeat — DO NOT wait to have this drink if it is your first time trying it, as the ice dilutes the signature flavour. The drink is served with ice; for some reason the dilution takes the flavour from an A+ to an F, and there’s no middle ground. These quenchers are incredibly sweet, but there is something so satisfying about the hint of pineapple that chases the liquid as you’re drinking this through a straw. I made it through many a hot day in Manila drinking these, so it absolutely hit my taste memory right in the feels.

If you don’t like sugary tropical drinks, you may want to give this one a pass.

Nostalgia: 5/5
Flavour: 4/5
Price: 4/5

Total Rating: 4/5

Cheesy Yumburger

Price: $4.99 CAD solo; $8.49 with fries and a soda.

This is a run-of-the-mill burger: a meat patty, a slice of American cheese, and some mayonnaise sit between a bun. I found the burger not as dry as what I’ve had back home — but it’s nothing impressive or amazing. What it does serve up is a bit more of a garlic-y flavour, and that familiarity will be a moment if you’ve ever had a Jollibee burger in the Philippines. After taking my first bite, I had to hold back tears.

Much of the flavour is from the patty and the mayo — and that mayo is one of my favourites. In fact, I’ve been convinced for ages that this is a version of Lady’s Choice spread — but that’s a discussion for another day.

This is a good way to be introduced to the flavours of Jollibee as it straddles the lines of Filipino and North American cuisine.

Nostalgia: 5/5
Flavour: 3.5/5
Price: 2.5/5

Total Rating: 3.5/5

Jolly Spaghetti

Price: $7.49 (served with a soda); $9.99 (served with a soda + 1pc of chicken); $15.99 (family-sized dish); $38.00 (As part of a bucket treat, which includes chicken and peach mango pies.)

This is probably one of the most polarizing dishes to come out of the Philippines. There are two that I often get asked about: ‘The Black Pudding,’ called dinuguan, and ‘The Spaghetti,’ which is a bit VERY sweet and has…hot dogs in it. Yes. Hot dogs. The phenomenon is similar to what you see in Korea with Army Stew, as processed meats were previously introduced to the Philippines in wartime. Some of those have stuck around — including the hot dog, which combined with banana ketchup and spaghetti, makes for an interesting textural and culinary experience. You’ll often see this dish at Filipino parties and potlucks.

I kept my expectations exceptionally low for the Jollibee version, as the only Filipino Spaghetti I’ve ever enjoyed was made by the late Gualberta ‘Beth’ Yerro – my aunt. She and I exchanged letters in my years leading up to my arrival in the Philippines, and always promised to make me her signature spaghetti; it never disappointed. Her version was sweet, but not too sweet; garlic-y, but not too garlic-y. She never put cheese on top — but you will find a sprinkling of grated cheddar over the fast food version.

I liked it way more than I expected. It was flavourful, evoked memories of home, and wasn’t as sweet as I expected it to be…but it is sweet. Jon was responsible for ordering the spaghetti, and he accidentally ordered two. We ate the first one the evening of the review, and reheated the second one the next day; both of us thought it reheated well.

Jon was adamant he’d never order it again, but said he’d eat it if it was served to him. As for me? Well…oddly enough, it’s been a few days and I can’t stop thinking about it. I may have been converted!

Nostalgia: 5/5
Flavour: 4/5
Price: 3/5

Total Rating: 4/5

Palabok

Price: $8.99 CAD (with soda); $11.49 (served with a soda + 1pc chicken); $20.99 (family pack); $44.00 (as part of a bucket treat, which includes chicken and peach mango pies)

Palabok (pronounced puh·la·buk) also known as Pancit Palabok is a Filipino vermicelli dish — and one of my favourites. Bring this to a Filipino party, and you’ll typically leave a hero. There are some regional differences, but Palabok usually includes flavours of shrimp, garlic, and pork. The sauce is almost runny, and sits on top of the noodles; on top of that you’ll usually find chicharon, shrimp, sliced hard-boiled egg, and sometimes green onion. Squeeze some citrus — like a lemon or kalamansi on top — and you’re good to go!

I’ll get right to it: this was disappointing. I suspect this version doesn’t transport well in traffic from Vancouver to New Westminster, as the container was full of condensation; I’d like to give it a try in a dine-in setting. The noodles were very wet and the sauce was a little too runny for my liking. It made me pine for the stuff my Titas would cook — but I ended up finishing it. Jon respected the flavours, but he didn’t like this one.

Also — where was my lemon?! Or kalamansi?!

Nostalgia: 1/5
Flavour: 2/5
Price: 2/5

Total Rating: 1.5/5

Jolly Crispy Chicken with Gravy

Price: There are many ways to order the chicken; the cheapest is $9.99 CAD if you want two pieces with one side and a soda. A six piece bucket is $15.99; a 10-piece bucket is $25.99. There are also Bucket Treat options available.

Arguably one of the most recognizable dishes, this is often referred to as ‘Chickenjoy’ in the Philippines. Crunchy on the outside, juicy and flavourful on the inside, it’s a distinct flavour that has put many smiles on the faces of Filipinos far and wide. There is also a spicy option.

The chicken was almost an absolute winner, but my pieces included shattered bones, which I’d never encountered before. The gravy is delicious, and is probably my favourite fast food gravy.

Jon absolutely loved the chicken and the gravy, noting the flavours and the loud crunch as he bit into a drumstick.

Next time I will be going full kamayan (eating with hands, no utensils) and having this with rice and gravy. And yes, I ate the chicken skin. No regrets.

We obviously ordered a lot of food, so this became leftovers the following night. It reheats well in both a microwave and in a regular oven.

Nostalgia: 5/5
Flavour: 5/5
Price: 4.5/5

Total Rating: 4.5/5

Peach Mango Pie

Price: $2.99 CAD. You can also buy them as part of a Bucket Treat!

These deep-fried pies are pretty tasty! A crispy, golden shell hugs the mango and peach filling; there’s a bit of a custard around the inner edges, too.

I’m not going to complicate things or keep you waiting. Order this. We ordered 13 and they didn’t even last 12 hours. Reheats well in the oven.

Nostalgia: 4/5
Flavour: 5/5
Price: 5/5

Total Rating: 4.5/5

Final Thoughts

There is something to be said about a corporation serving up nostalgia, but this is ultimately what you’re getting if you’re from the Philippines and grew up with this chain. Speak to anyone who has been to a Jollibee in the Philippines — or experienced the earlier part of their lives with that bee in the background — and you’ll see how much of a phenomenon it is.

To a Filipina like myself, it’s more than just chicken: it literally was my ‘Bestfriend Jollibee.’ I didn’t know anyone, and I was treated more like a foreign body than a family member because I am half White. Taking a bite out of a Yumburger or a swig of Pineapple Quencher was a comforting and judgement-free zone.

I admit the food at Jollibee is not five-star fare, and you will likely never see Michelin stars next to its name. What you will always, always see is a love for the taste of home. That’s why Filipinos — like myself — line-up and wait four hours for a bite of chicken and a hit of gravy.

That to me is priceless.

Jollibee is now open at 833 Granville Street in Vancouver. At least two more locations are slated expected to open in B.C. before the summer, with plans for a fourth location to come.

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