Southern California has branches of the Filipino Fried Chicken Chain Jollibee Panorama City, in the San Fernando Valley; in both Mid-City and Downtown Los Angeles; in Eagle Rock; in the South Bay, in Torrance and Carson; in Long Beach in Artesia; in Orange County in Anaheim and Irvine; in the Inland Empire in Rancho Cucamonga and Ontario; and here in the San Gabriel Valley in West Covina…and right here in Alhambra.
I’ve been to many, though not all of the branches, and this is the first I’ve come across that’s an actual SoCal-style drive-thru.
As drive-thrus often go, during a recent visit there was a long line of hungry locals, waiting for their chances to speak to the drive-up ordering thingy, and then continue to snake around the building till they get to the window out of which their bag o’ chow will come.
Admiring the length of the line, I trudged around this free-standing structure on the edge of sprawling mall dominated by a 99 Ranch Market — with such edible options as Mr. Rice Yunnan Rice Noodles and Half and Half Boba Express — gazing in wonder at the domination of the scene by fried chicken that was born so far away.
It was a festive line of vehicles (they weren’t waiting for their COVID tests!) The cars were blaring a lot of music. I was snapping a few photos with my iPhone when a dude in one of the cars called me over — and asked me to take a picture of he and his lady friend waiting for their chicken. I agreed. And sent it to him to treasure and share with his family and friends. With the chicken, I trust. Jollibee is like this.
There are more than 1,200 locations around the globe, including 28 here in California. This isn’t just a Filipino version of KFC. If anything, it’s a Disneyland reinterpretation. Only in this case, rather than there being a mouse…there’s a bee.
You’ve heard the expression “cute as a bee’s knees”? Well, here, the whole darned bee is cute — with a bright, winning smile and eyes that twinkle, in a cartoon sort of way. And not surprisingly, Jollibee comes with a backstory that’s right out of Horatio Alger — a real rags-to-riches tale of success.
It all started in 1975 when Tony Tan Caktiong and family opened an ice-cream parlor in Cubao, Quezon City. They were poor Chinese immigrants who had a talent for feeding others. That talent led to hot food to go and sandwiches as well as ice cream. The hot food was so popular that the ice cream was dropped in 1978. Crispy, crunchy hot chicken became the dish of choice, under the name Jollibee — a cutesy logo that quickly became one of the most recognizable mascots in the Philippines.
There were seven branches in Metro Manila by 1978. The Santa Cruz franchise opened in 1979.
The first McDonald’s opened in the Philippines in 1981. Jollibee was a local favorite that was so established that nothing could knock it off the top.
And that mountain consisted of a growing world of new dishes — each with its own mascot. Chickee was also represented by the Chickenjoy combination plates. Lady Moo’s milkshakes Yumburger by Mr. Yum Twirlie’s sundaes Popo made the french fries. The Jolly Spaghetti from Hetty.
The Philippines was inundated with the Jollibee chain “cute.”And that’s just the beginning “cute,” being local, was embraced, adored, loved — and by 1986 was spreading abroad, around the world. Tony Tan Caktiong became a billionaire thanks to this taste of home for Filipinos in other countries. It is easy to see why when you visit the Alhambra branch.
The bee is everywhere! On drink cups! In profile on wallpaper — so recognizable, facial features aren’t even necessary! On tubs of chicken parts ranging in size from an individual to an extended family member! An oversized Jollibee statue is standing in front of the restaurant, beckoning you to enter! (It should be noted that Jollibee, just like Mickey Mouse, wears white gloves with a thumb, three fingers, and a thumb. Also, oversized yellow shoes. Also, a bowtie!
So, how’s the chicken? It’s, as the wallpaper tells us, “Crispylicious” “Juicylicious.” The breading doesn’t stay crunchy for long, so it’s best to dig in while the Chickenjoy is fresh from the deep-fryer — a tasty crust, properly moist chicken within, with a hint of pepper, but surprisingly little spice for a Filipino object of desire.
This is a country known for its hot and even more spicy foods. It’s easy to use for all tastes. The simplest of the meals — the two-piece Chickenjoy with one side — comes with a choice of french fries, mashed potatoes, buttered corn, steamed rice, and the option of a side of gravy, which is kind of salty, and kind of not necessary.
Chickenjoy meals get larger when you add more pieces, more sides, and bigger buckets.
There’s the option of adding an order of Jolly Spaghetti, which one online site refers to as “Legendary.”I’m guessing. It’s a mixture of spaghetti, ground meat, sliced sausages and sweetened sauce made with banana ketchup. It tastes just like something a 6-yearold could make, adding random items from the refrigerator. It’s a major party dish in the Philippines, and, well, it is filling.
The most interesting of the Yumburger selections is the Aloha — which is topped with a slice of pineapple. But then, I don’t go to Jollibee for burgers. Jolly Spaghetti? No, not hamburgers. I’m mostly here for the chicken. The Bee, too. I can’t resist cute anymore than the rest of us.
I treasure the Mickey memorabilia from my first visit to the Magic Kingdom lo’ these many years ago; I still have my Mickey hat, with my name stitched on it. I’m tempted to get one of the many Jollibee t-shirts. They are very nice, especially the ones with the Bee on it. But there’s one that says, in lower case: “yumburger&chickenjoy&burgersteak&jollyspaghetti.” It’s so peculiar. It’s delicious, too!