First Bite: Filipino Fried Chicken At Jollibee In Missouri City
Americans seem to love Asian-style fried chicken and Houstonians are no exception. Some popular renditions include Korean-style, covered in sweet-savory-spicy gochujang and Japanese karaage. Both cooking techniques yield ultra-crispy results. Now Houstonians have a new infatuation: Filipino fried chicken, and the fast-food source for this is global sensation Jollibee, which recently opened a second Houston-area location at 6127 Highway 6 in Missouri City. Although the COVID-19 pandemic delayed its grand opening, the new location is now serving, at least for drive-through and to-go orders.
I was intrigued when a friend who lives in New Orleans asked if I had tried Jollibee. His chef-buddy in NOLA raved about it, which was an endorsement I couldn’t ignore. When I got to the restaurant I saw a line of roughly twenty cars snaking through the parking lot for drive-through service. The previously empty and seemingly abandoned red building was clearly a magnet for hungry patrons.
The important distinction about Jollibee’s famous self-described “Chicken Joy” — and, for that matter, Filipino fried chicken in general — is that it is not an Asian-inspired twist on an American classic. This isn’t the kimchi dry-seasoned, tossed in chili oil, spicy fried chicken of your Chinatown dreams. Rather, Jollibee serves a true-to-form version of Southern-American fried chicken: hand-breaded, minimally seasoned and greasy as heck. It is beloved and regarded not for its exotic flavors, but for a bizarre combination of pedestrian, albeit addictive, fried chicken and a “fast-foodified” assortment of Filipino standards, including sweet spaghetti and pancit palabok, a rice noodle (bihon) dish accented with shrimp sauce, crushed chicharon, dried and smoked flaked fish and hard-boiled eggs.
The Missouri City drive-through menu was mysteriously missing several Jollibee items, such as the chicken sandwiches and burgers, which I’ve heard are fan favorites. In my rushed naivety, I ordered a simple box combo with six pieces of chicken, three mashed potatoes, extra gravy, three signature peach-mango pies and pineapple juice — a staple beverage in the Philippines, which is the second-largest exporter of pineapples in the world. I also failed to order one of the famous regional dishes, such as the sweet spaghetti or pancit palabok. I felt instant regret when I saw the stacks of burgers and sandwiches through the drive-thru window and plan to return soon. In the meantime, this assessment focuses only on the fried Chicken Joy, dessert pies and classic mashed potatoes.
While fanatics laud the Jollibee Chicken Joy as superior to its American counterparts due to its extra-crunchy and hand-breaded skin, I don’t think it’s the best fried chicken in town. In fairness, since dine-in isn’t a current option at the Missouri City location, the much esteemed Chicken Joy is unfortunately left to steam in its bucket for however long it takes to get home or to work. Even my short drive home did little to preserve that famous crunch. So, the COVID-era of takeout means diners aren’t getting the full Jollibee fried-chicken experience. Despite this drawback, I did appreciate the thick and still somewhat crispy skin that covered a moist interior. Although the pieces were appropriately oily and pull-apart tender, the gristle and fat ratio were a bit of a disappointment. Little can be said of the mashed potatoes and gravy which could not also be said of KFC, Popeye’s or Betty Crocker.
The highlight of my Filipino fast-food experience actually came last: a deep-fried, crunchy and still-warm peach-mango pie. It was a perfect mix of two complimentary fruits in a crispy shell that tasted like the first time someone handed me a McDonald’s apple pie, but with better filling. Washed down with cold pineapple juice, the sweet tropical flavors painted an interesting dichotomy against the backdrop of the fried chicken and potatoes.
Since I didn’t order Jollibee classics such as the sweet spaghetti or hamburger steak, so I cannot speculate on the quality. Frankly, the menu photos looked about as appetizing as you’d imagine fast-food spaghetti and hamburger steak to look.
Ultimately, my first Jollibee experience was a somewhat disheartening look at how American fast-food is internalized and reflected in other cultures. It reminded me of the time I ordered “McMolletes” in a Yucatan McDonald’s and stared blankly at two halves of an English muffin smeared with refried beans and sprinkled with mozzarella. Jollibee improves neither its Colonial source material nor its South Asian influences. That said: it deserves a revisit for additional items, and hopefully during a better time for dining.