On a recent Sunday, The Gastronomer needed to get caught up on the virtual world, so we drove around District 4 looking for a free WIFI spot. After the local coffee shop let us down, she suggested that we try the Filipino burger chain Jollibee. I feel obligated to eventually sample each of Southeast Asia’s attempts at American-style fast food—plus Jolli’s mascot blows Ronald McDonald out of the water—so I agreed.
I stood at the counter weighing my options for some time. Jollibee’s combo meals are slightly cheaper than Lotteria’s (the current leader in the Vietnamese fast food market), and their hamburger looks equally unappetizing. Other menu options included hot dogs, soft serve ice cream, and spaghetti with marinara sauce. Four boys at a table next to us ordered the latter, and it looked terrible—straight out of a bad elementary school cafeteria.
The most appealing possibility by far was the fried chicken, available in several forms. I settled on the original style chicken tenders. I didn’t particularly want a soda, so I initially ordered only tenders and French fries (in evaluating a new fast food restaurant it is absolutely essential to sample the fries), only to find that adding a drink would actually decrease the price of my meal. Go figure—I have a feeling the portion of fries included with the combo meal may be tinier than the smallest bag one can order by itself, or maybe logic just can’t explain it. Fortunately I took seven semesters of economics in college, so I knew what to do.
The fries and Pepsi came out first. This was a good sign, evidence of the fact that fast food restaurants here actually make most of the food to order. I dug in—the fries resembled the classic fast food fry in look and texture, but they arrived only lukewarm and were barely seasoned. In this situation a large dose of ketchup can usually save the day, but sadly none was provided; instead I received a dish of Vietnamese chili sauce. This is probably just fine with most of their customers, but I don’t really like the stuff. Perhaps the most vital Vietnamese phrase I’ve learned so far is “dung cho ot.” I barely dipped the tip of each fry in the sauce and tried to strike a balance between blandness and unpleasant chili flavor.
At this point, I was not enjoying myself and kind of resented The Gastronomer for bringing me there and bamboozling me into buying something so she could surf the web. Fortunately, the chicken tenders arrived hot and crispy. I bit into one and found them slightly superior to the version served in stadiums and arenas across America. This may not sound like high praise, but those trans-fat-soaked babies are pretty damn good. Like nearly all meats in Vietnam, the Jollibee tenders were scrawnier than those back home, but I found them to be quite satisfying and flavorful enough to enjoy without the addition of chili sauce. I even convinced The Gastronomer to try a bite, and she admitted to enjoying the garlicky seasoning.
Will I return to Jollibee? Most likely not—I’ve trained myself to distrust fast food, and I can still get a better deal on fried chicken from a Vietnamese place. However, in a pinch one could do much worse than their chicken tenders. I expect the spicy fried chicken is tasty as well. Stay tuned for comparisons with the competitors.
Multiple locations in HCMC