Wednesday, April 04, 2018

Eating OFF the Hill: Jollibee comes to Scarborough

The easy shorthand for explaining Jollibee to Canadians is that it's the Filipino McDonald's. But it seems to hold a deeper cultural resonance for those from the Philippines than McDonald's, so perhaps Tim Horton's would be a better comparative.

After opening its first two Canadian locations in Winnipeg -- Prime Minister Trudeau visited the first location, as well as one in Manila -- the hunger only built in the Greater Toronto area. It was great to see the borough win one for once, with the first location in Ontario opening this past weekend at Kennedy Commons in Scarborough.

I had the opportunity to attend the pre-opening event Saturday, and a tent was already set up in the parking lot for those expected to camp out overnight to be among the first in line for the next day's official opening. The first 40 through the door would win a "year's supply" (one bucket per month) of Jollibee's flagship Chicken Joy.

A Jollibee executive told me they were excited to finally be in Toronto, and many more locations are being planned in the region. The challenge has been finding suitable locations for lease -- many are reserved for other restaurant chains. They had hoped to be here much sooner, and should be in Mississauga soon. I was told they also recently bought American burger chain Smashburger, though there's no word on when they may bring that brand to Canada.

But let's focus on the food. We got to try three of their flagship mains once the formal program was completed -- the aforementioned Chicken Joy, their Jolly Spaghetti, and the Palabok Fiesta. Other menu anchors we didn't get to try included Hamburger Steak, the Yum Burger and the spicy version of the Chicken Joy.

Taking a plate to the buffet line (for the pre-opening only, it's regular fast food ordering usually) I  passed on the salad and added some of each offering to my plate. Staff also came to tables to offer gravy, sides such as corn, rice and potatoes, drinks including delicious pineapple juice, and peach mango pies for desert.

I'll start with the Chicken Joy. They only serve dark meat as they believe it's juicer (which I suppose it is), which puts me at a disadvantage since I greatly prefer white meat. On its own it was fairly typical fried chicken, heavily breaded and cooked through. I didn't find the breading particularly flavourful (no secret blend of herbs and spices) and it may have been a touch too crispy. I'd have liked to have tried the spicy version. I'm told what makes the difference though is dipping it in the gravy. It's a brown gravy, but with an extra ingredient I cannot put my finger on which gives it a little something more. It did indeed enhance my Chicken Joy joy, so consider it a mandatory accompaniment.

Moving on to the Jolly Spaghetti, I was warned ahead of time it's not really like our usual spaghetti. It's described as a sweet spaghetti and I'd heard the sauce compared, I would guess not favourably, to ketchup. Now, it's hard to get a true sense of it because of the way it was uniquely served this time -- buffet, sauce on top -- made for a lower than usual sauce to pasta ratio, I found it only slightly sweeter than usual spaghetti. It also include diced ham and sausage, which blended well with the sauce.

The other noodle-based offering, Palabok Fiesta, was noodles with a garlic sauce topped with pork rinds, shrimp, sauteed pork and sliced egg. I moved the egg to the side and dug in, although I am generally wary of fast food shrimp. With the recommended packet of lemon juice adding more flavour, it was OK but wouldn't be a regular order for me.

In addition to the accompanying pineapple juice, which was a nice change over pop, the standout for me was the Peach Mango Pie. With the same form as a McDonald's Apple Pie, the flaky sweet crust revealed a delicious mixture of peach and mango chunks in a sugary sauce. Sugar does seem to be a recurring theme.

Expect long lines at Jollibee for some time to come -- I hear the first customer on Sunday camped out for some 17 hours, and Filipinos and foodies from across the region will be making the pilgrimage steadily for some time to come.

I'll be back for the Chicken Joy with gravy and to try the hamburger steak, and a Peach Mango Pie for desert, on some jolly day in the near future.

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