The food in this review was paid for, in part, using a gift voucher from Jollibee’s UK public relations firm. The voucher was unsolicited and they had no say over anything in this review, nor were they informed in advance of the date or time of my visit.
It has probably happened you. It has certainly happened to me – usually with Bleeding Gums Murphy, but not always. The question that gets asked whenever someone is faced with a cuisine, food or dish that’s outside of their usual frame of reference. ‘But, how do I eat it?’
It’s by no means a daft question and naturally it never gets asked when someone is faced with their usual anglicised Chinese, Indian or Thai takeaway. That food, more often than not, bears little resemblance to what the proprietors and chefs would prepare for themselves. Whether it’s to appease the conservative tastes of overly cautious patrons or simply the result of hard-to-acquire ingredients and skilled chefs, those dishes are adaptations – perhaps inevitable adaptations when dishes from one cultural context are transferred to another.
A similar yet different process gave birth to Jollibee, the biggest fast food chain you’ve probably never heard of. This Filipino chain may appear to be yet another American-style fried chicken shop, but its menu is also the result of adaptation – taking some US staples and adapting them to ostensible Filipino tastes.
Both are adaptations. One born out of sheer necessity and largely unloved by those who make it. The other, a cultural icon big enough to appear in an episode of Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown. Both ended up making foreign food more palatable to their customers by making it taste less foreign.
Outside of this quasi-anthropological navel-gazing, there’s the question of what Jollibee’s food actually tastes like to a non-Filipino in a city saturated with fast food options, American-style and otherwise.
As you might expect from a highly-polished process perfected for rollout in umpteen countries across the world, Jollibee’s fried chicken (optimistically named ‘Chickenjoy’) is competently done. But it’s neither the best nor the worst example of its ilk. The batter was of the soft and supple variety, rather than crisp and crunchy. I’d have preferred the latter, but plenty of people will like it just the way it is. The chicken underneath was, as expected, nothing to write home about. Notably, each and every piece Happy Buddha and I picked apart was evenly cooked and entirely free of grease – a pleasing feat that is by no means a given in the world of fried chicken, fast or slow. Naturally, the thigh and drumstick pieces were moister than the breast chunks and thus far more pleasurable.
The much-touted spaghetti took on a unappetising congealed appearance in the handful of minutes it took me to carry it from Jollibee’s Leicester Square premises to a nearby green space reasonably free of pigeons. The overly soft pasta was topped with a mildly sweet ragu that was surprisingly lacking in meatiness despite being dotted with slices of hotdog. Given the hype that has surrounded this dish, I was expecting something else other than a reminder of my childhood school cafeteria lunches.
The finely ground single patty of the Yumburger had a transient meaty tang. Much of the taste here came instead from the salad cream-esque sauce which had a mild sweetness and creaminess to it. It’s better than most similarly-sized basic fast food burgers in its inoffensiveness, which is admittedly a low bar. The most enthusiastic thing I can say about the Yumburger is that it didn’t drip all over my delicately sensitive thighs.
The dainty bun of the hot dog was a flimsy affair, but the wiener itself was an unexpectedly meaty wanger – pleasing enough to stand on its own given the unmemorable topping of what appeared to be melted cheese and possibly the same sauce that graced the Yumburger. If I had to pick between Jollibee’s hot dog and the Yumburger, the hot dog would win every time.
Somewhat surprisingly, the chicken rice bowl didn’t simply reuse bits of standard Chickenjoy. Although not a world apart, the batter did differ with modest hints of very mild chilli spice. Perhaps even more impressively, the small-grained rice was soft and fluffy. It’s not going to win any awards, but it’s far more palatable than many fast food attempts at chicken and rice.
You can have any soft serve sundae you want from Jollibee’s, as long as it’s topped with either chocolate or mango. The chocolate had little to say for itself, while its mango counterpart was oddly reminiscent of a melted and reconstituted Solero. Both variants were dusted with desiccated coconut to no readily apparent benefit. The sundaes were sweet and cold, but so are Cornettos which are cheaper.
I started this review by noting the parallels and similarities between Jollibee and the UK’s anglicised Chinese and Indian takeaways. Upon reflection and digestion, one of the most striking similarities is that the ultimate appeal of both are dependent on nostalgia, speed and low cost. If you didn’t grow up with either, then you’re unlikely to find any of them especially compelling. Plus, if you have the privilege of time and money, as well as some inquisitiveness, then far better tasting versions are available to you at alternative eateries.
Both were created to make foreign foods more commercially acceptable to their target customers. I can’t speak for the Philippines, but the UK’s overall willingness to accept foreign foods beyond sweeping takeaway caricatures has been – like its acceptance of the people that cook those foods – fitful and sometimes dysfunctional.
Even so, for fast food, you could do a lot worse than Jollibee’s. But I won’t be rushing back anytime soon.
What to order: Fried chicken; hot dog
What to skip: nothing was truly bad enough to be worth avoiding entirely
Branch tried: 22 Leicester Square, London WC2H 7LE
Phone: 020 7839 7150
Opening Hours: seven days a week, 10.00-22.00.
Reservations: not taken
Average cost per main dish: £4-6