Fast food is exceptionally popular in the Philippines. It may be an oddity given that this is a country where food is meant to be used as a tool for sharing, togetherness, and family. However, with a strong Catholic populace, and an ever increasing American influence, fast food has exploded since the early 80’s, and you’d be hard pressed to find a corner in the country that doesn’t have a quick, greasy option.
None are more popular than Jollibee, a Filipino hamburger powerhouse that opened in 1978, and quickly became the option for locals looking for a treat. By focusing specifically on the foods that appealed to the palate of the locals, they were able to hold off McDonalds when they expanded into the country, and have remained the #1 option, now with over 3000 locations.
I’m no snob; I love good fast food. I’ve gone out of my way to get Chipotle, I love 5 Guys, and even McDonalds has its place. I just want flavorful food, at a fair price. So that’s how I found myself venturing into Jollibee around lunch time on Sunday.
Taking a page right out of the McDonalds playbook, their giant plastic mascot greets visitors at the door. And judging by the number of kids who were lined up to get their photo with “Jollibee” – they LOVE this guy … whatever he is. I assume it’s a literal translation, and he’s just a happy go lucky bee, but I’ve never seen a red and yellow bee. That, in and of itself, terrifies me. Either this guy is on the cusp of death from sunstroke, or he’s a super bee, armed with unnaturally violent stinging powers, and sooner or later it will be him, and not the earthquakes, that renders this country immobile for good. No, I didn’t care for Mascot Jollibee.
I stood in line and eyeballed the menu with amusement. Every sandwich option appeared to be drowned in their signature sauce; the usual Filipino blend of ketchup and mayonnaise. The hot dog appeared to be as much sauce as it was dog. The options ranged from curious, like the blueberry float, to the downright disgusting, such as the macaroni soup and tuna pie.
I settled on their chicken and spaghetti combo. No, outside of a chicken parm, neither of these things belong together – I gotcha – but this is a thing around here. I’ve seen this particular combo offered at other fast food restaurants, like McDonalds, to fancier, higher end locations. And, if it’s good enough for them, it’s good enough for me to try. I also asked for a Jolly Burger with cheese, and no sauce; figuring I’d take a bite out of their most popular menu items all in one shot. I finished it off with a Coke Zero; one of the lone drink options in the country that isn’t laced with enough sugar to take down a pachyderm.
I got to my table, only to discover they hadn’t given me any cutlery. Making me work in a fast food restaurant! Well I never! Once I went through the laborious task of acquiring my fork and knife, I returned and immediately deconstructed my burger. One, I wanted you to see what I see. Two, I was making sure they didn’t sneak any of their awful looking sauce.
That, my friends, might be the single least appetizing thing I have ever seen in my entire life. That gelatinous bile coating the top of the alleged hamburger is “cheese”. It doesn’t resemble any cheese product I’d normally be comfortable putting in my body; hell, even McDonalds cheese at least comes in an identifiable square. I’m not entirely convinced that this isn’t the kind of stomach churning mess that surgeons are asked to remove from people.
I drowned the hellspawn in ketchup and went for it. It was … quite possibly the worst burger I have ever eaten. Ground beef it ain’t. Years ago I saw a package of “ground meat” in the refrigerator section at Giant Tiger, and this is possibly where it wound up. If I could adequately describe the flavor, I would, but I can say with complete honesty that I have never eaten anything that comes close to that flavor profile in my life. It may as well have been a ground up Goodyear tire; I wouldn’t know cuz I’ve never eaten one. At least not until now. That was the end of that.
I already knew enough not to expect my spaghetti sauce to be remotely Italian. Herbs and spices are an unknown commodity in the spaghetti world. Instead, the sauces are basically tomato paste and sugar, sweet, with a vague hint of tomato in the background. The other day, I saw bags of sauce being sold at the grocery store. Some were labelled Filipino style, some were labelled sweet style, and a third kind were sweet Filipino style. I have theorized that the sweet Filipino style is actually just a bag of cotton candy, but I haven’t put it to the test.
Despite what I thought was a good mental preparedness for the sauce, my body wasn’t ready for the onslaught of diabetes that followed my first (and last) forkful. I’m fairly sure that the unsold sauce is used to coat candy apples at state fairs. Did they just melt Jolly Ranchers down, throw in bits of Pepperettes, and decide “yeah we’re good”! I went to wash the flavor of regret out of my mouth, and instead I was met with the worst Coke Zero imaginable. No, I’m sure the Coke Zero itself was fine – but the glass it came in tasted like it had just been power washed in that blue stuff barbers clean combs with, and nobody had bothered to rinse it afterwards. Damn it Jollibee, what the hell is wrong with you?
The chicken was my only hope at not leaving hungry at this point. I started with a bite from the crispy skin. It was seasoned thoroughly. Unfortunately, the seasoning in question was the fryer oil, which I’m not sure had been changed since this store was erected. I literally couldn’t taste anything else except nightmares. The gravy didn’t help; but given that I believe it was melty brown Play-Doh, that’s to be expected. The interior of the bird was grey, and pretty much nothing but fat.
This is how much I left on my tray:
Philippines – help me out … what’s the appeal? You can get steaming hot batchoy for half the price of the 155 pesos (~$4.50) that this cost me. Fresh seafood is abundant, and inexpensive. Chicken adobo and rice can be found for under 100 pesos.
If I take enough wrong turns in my life, I’m convinced there will come a time I’ll find myself at an unknown gateway. An evil red bee will be there to greet me, and invite me in to have his cheeseburgers and candy coated spaghetti. The meal will last for eternity, and leaving won’t be an option.
I’ll be in hell.