The line starts at Jollibee and winds like a snake through the parking lot, before trailing south onto Preston road. Those of us who are in line idle through a cycle or two of lights at the George Bush intersection. Others zoom around us, honking, confused. A police officer guards one of the entrances to the parking lot.
It’s the first week Jollibee has been open, and it’s a line not everyone is willing to brave. Before we even get off the road, a few cars around me lose patience and jolt out of line.
Jollibee’s opening is such a big deal that while some restaurants have closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic and most are struggling, Jollibee is not. In fact, on their first day, the company reported to Dallas Morning News that they served about 2,000 people.
Over the course of Jollibee’s first week, I braved the line multiple times and tried multiple offerings like the famous ChickenJoy, Jolly spaghetti, to discover what was so worth the wait.
As Regina Badillo, a Filipino coworker explains, Jollibee caters to the Filipino palate and for her, it’s a quintessential part of her childhood. Jollibee has been called the McDonald’s of the Philippines. But in the Philippines, it’s not even a fair comparison. There, Jollibee has more than 750 stores and has dominated the market since it opened in 1978. By the time McDonald’s came to the Philippines a few years later, Jollibee was already established, and McDonalds has never been able to catch up.
“Between McDonalds and Jollibee, I’d choose Jollibee. It’s a childhood favorite,” Regina says. Her family, she says, loves its liberal use of cheddar cheese and what she calls “a certain sweetness.” While there are plenty of fast food burger, fries, and hot dogs, she says, there is nothing like Jollibee.
Today, Jollibee operates 37 stores in the US and more than 1,300 worldwide. Before DFW had a Jollibee, the closest outlet was in Houston. Sometimes, when they’d had a craving, Regina and her husband would drive or fly there just for Jolli Spaghetti.
Filipino cuisine is distinguished by its bold combination of sweet, sour, and salty flavors, delivered all at once. “It’s this weird conglomeration,” Plano Chef Denise Apigo told D Magazine in Feb. 2020. “It’s not spicy like Thai cooking. It’s not herby like Vietnamese cooking. It’s got a lot of funk from fish sauce and fermented shrimp. A lot of brightness from vinegar and citrus. And a lot of weird, off-the-wall things. Like our version of spaghetti with this sweet sauce and the hot dogs chopped up and the cheddar cheese. That’s all just part of our history. People might smirk about it, but it was all about the Americans trying to make themselves feel at home with their cobbled-together spaghetti.”
Local foodies and critics have been forecasting a Filipino food craze for a few years now. When a food trend pops up on the East and West coast, it’s a pretty sure bet that within a couple of years it will meet here, in the heart of Texas. 2020 was meant to be Filipino food’s year in DFW. Pre-COVID, the metroplex was seeing a boom of Filipino food pop-up events from places like Ulam, Bilao, and Hella Lumpia. On March 8, 2020, Dallas had its first Filipino Food Festival.
“We are the younger generation of Filipino entrepreneurs showcasing Filipino food influenced from our own experiences,” the festival organizers said at the time.
It was wildly successful, drawing such lofty crowds that Dallas Observer’s food critic, who waited almost an hour for a bowl of noodles, wryly complained that Filipino food was “too popular.”
Of course, just after the festival, the world shut down. There is no word on whether the festival will ever return. Pop-up events were put on hold, and the restaurant industry hunkered down for a long, tense summer. Upcoming food crazes, and everything else nonessential, were put on the backburner.
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Then in August, Jollibee opened its doors. Jollibee wasn’t just necessary because that location on Preston road had been long vacant; Jollibee was feeding DFW’s cultural craving for Filipino food, a craving years in the making.
The first time I went to Jollibee, I bailed after about 30 minutes. It was just before dinner time and I was low on gas. But the next time I turned onto Preston Road with Jollibee on my mind, I was ready for a two-hour wait. I had a full tank, a lower back pillow, and an audiobook on deck.
The line was crazy, but it’s well-coordinated, and the staff, undergoing their trial by fire, seems to have it down. A couple of staff members stood in front of the restaurant, greeting the customers stubborn enough to wait hours to reach them, and taking their orders on iPads. When I make it, I don’t waste time. I’ve already perused the menu on my phone and about two hours after I entered the line, I’ve got Jolly Spaghetti and pineapple juice to show for it.
Jolly Spaghetti, a tangle of spaghetti noodles, ground meat, sliced hot dogs, gets the flavor of its legendary sweet sauce from banana ketchup. Banana ketchup was originally created in the Philippines during World War II as a substitute for tomato ketchup because there was a shortage of tomatoes and surplus of bananas. It’s naturally a burnished yellow, but it’s dyed red to more closely resemble ketchup. Jolly Spaghetti isn’t as sweet as I expected; the flavor is warm, its sweetness kept in check by shredded cheese. If it’s related to Italian spaghetti sauce at all, it’s distant. At most, it’s a second cousin. Jolly Spaghetti has its own special flavor.
Their Palabok Fiesta, another noodle dish, might be even better. Jollibee’s version of this traditional Filipino noodle dish starts with glass noodles, and builds with shrimp, ground meat, hard-boiled eggs, plenty of garlic, and pork rings. Squeeze lemon juice over the top, and it’s an incredibly balanced dish.
The next time I visited, I hit the line around 10 a.m. To my surprise, I was in and out in a tight 15 minutes. Traffic was peaceful enough that for the girl who had been personally taking orders, instead waved me forward to the intercom and wished me “a Jolly day.”
Jollibee’s most famous meal is ChickenJoy. As far as fried chicken, there are plenty of competitors in Texas, and yet ChickenJoy still brings something new and delicious to the table. Each piece, whether it’s on a sandwich (with garlic aioli), or in a bucket, is golden and crunchy, the way it’s supposed to be. The marinade is Jollibee’s best kept secret, but whatever it is keeps the meat tender and juicy, and imbibes it with a unique, sweet fragrance underneath the ripples of crisp batter. You’ll need a napkin and possibly an extra order of smooth, hot gravy.
On its face, the Jollibee menu is typical: fried chicken, hot dogs, and burgers, but in every bite runs an undercurrent of flavor. A certain “something.” For people who grew up loving Jollibee in the Philippines, the line at Plano’s new location is worth the wait. Even two hours in line is shorter than a drive to Houston.
For longtime patrons, Jollibee offers a strong sense of community and nostalgia wrapped up in every meal, defined flavors only Jollibee offers. For newcomers, they extend the promise of truly original dishes, tried and tested. And for everyone, there’s damn good chicken.
1016 Preston Rd., Plano | 469.333.2520 | jollibeeusa.com