Jollibee - Cerritos
It's been said before: Jollibee is the Filipino answer to McDonald's. And their answer to Ronald McDonald is a giant bumble-bee with pie-shaped eyes larger than Sailor Moon's, wearing a bright red tuxedo, a bow-tie, and an unwavering grin.
State-side pre-teens may kowtow to Ronald and Chucky Cheese, but in the Philippines, this insect is queen of the hive with stingers to match. Jollibee's homegrown empire has bested the American clown and even The Colonel to emerge as the number one fast-food chain in that country, thanks to American-style marketing and a menu offering both U.S. fast-food staples like fried chicken (re-branded "Chickenjoy") and traditional Pinoy favorites.
Now, with a few strategically positioned outposts centered near Filipino communities here in the U.S., Jollibee is the only Asian chain to cross the Pacific that I know of that isn't Yoshinoya.
The Cerritos branch is probably one of the first to open in California, and it's still spotless. A statue of the bee stands outside in a John Travolta disco pose. Inside, pimply Filipino teens with hairnets serve food, while a DVD of the dancing and singing Jollibee himself, loops on a tiny TV.
While most of the food is accessible to non-Filipinos, some items will probably be more than a little strange to those unfamiliar with the culture's peculiar predilections. One such example is the Filipino version of spaghetti.
This is pasta and marinara for the sweet-toothed -- a concoction which tastes like dinner and dessert rolled up into one -- with cut up hot dogs thrown in for good measure, a melted layer of grated taco cheese on top for tang, and draped in a sugary tomato-sauce which could prove lethal to diabetics.
It's called Jolli Spaghetti ($2.95), the product of a partnership between Chef Boyardee and Willy Wonka.
I swear I've seen something on Nickelodeon resembling this dish, which might explain why little kids love it as much as I do. But before you pooh-pooh how it bastardizes the Italian classic, just remember that the California roll and barbecue chicken pizza were invented in America.
Instead, I think of the dish as fusion fast food; a continental meal adapted to the Filipino tastebud. And besides, if it's wrong to have a hot dog and cheese on the same plate as spaghetti, then I don't want to be right.
Fiesta Palabok ($3.95) is a more traditional dish -- Jollibee's version of the popular Filipino street food, pancit palabok. As with all renditions of pancit palabok, the secret is in the gravy, a delicate balance of briny shrimp and fatty pork. This thick pink sauce is poured over a bed of light-as-air, jiggly-as-jelly, rice vermicelli noodles, then topped with cooked ground pork, spring onions, bay shrimp, toasted garlic, flaked smoked fish, pork cracklings, and a few slices of hard-boiled egg.
Lemon juice from a small plastic packet has to be drizzled over the dish for zing and before everything is mixed together with a fork. Once it's good and ready, it will look like pad thai, but taste nothing like it. Palabok is more complex, with porky leanings and a distinctly Pinoy soul.
The Chickenjoy ($4.75), however, was a standard issue fried-chicken, indistinguishable from KFC, Pioneer and the like, served with a similar but less salty version of KFC's gravy. But instead of mashed potato, it's rice.
For a dollar extra, you get a shake to accompany the chicken, like the ube (purple yam), which I found to be chalky, especially since I waited too long to finish the brew. The flavor powder used separates rapidly from the melting ice slush. The tapioca pearls also tend to be brittle and get progressively harder the longer they stay in the drink.
Jollibee's might not conquer the U.S.A. in the near future, what with the vice grip our own corporate chains have on young, impressionable minds. But one look into Jollibee's cartoon eyes, and this impressionable mind thinks of Fiesta Palabok and a trip to Cerritos.
17312 Norwalk Blvd.
Cerritos, CA 90703