There’s a Jollibee in the neighborhood!

Craving a ChickenJoy dinner, author ventures into Jersey City and finds a Jollibee wedged between a liquor store and a Rite-Aid. Photos by John Nicholson

Craving a ChickenJoy dinner, author ventures into Jersey City and finds a Jollibee wedged between a liquor store and a Rite-Aid. Photos by John Nicholson

By John Nicholson

The Jollibee brand is familiar to the Filipino. The cheerful red-jacketed bee mascot presides over a growing number of outlets in Asia, and the brand is gaining a foothold in the American market.

Typically located in places with a large Filipino population such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Hong Kong, the bee has added Jersey City to that list since the branch opened in 2012. It is only the second one on the East Coast, the other being located in Woodside, Queens.

Nostalgic for the Philippines and keen to enjoy a ChickenJoy dinner, I decided to take a look. It was a beautiful sunny February day, with the temperature in the fifties. Having a natural dislike for driving in cities, I decided to travel by the Hudson-Bergen light rail to West Side Ave. and walk south to Danforth Ave.

I have to say that West Side Ave. is depressing even on a sunny day. God only knows what it’s like when it rains. I passed the grey monolith of the Social Security Administration office with its heartless staring windows. Why is it that government offices always seem so intentionally ugly? I saw vacant lots with ‘land for sale’ behind wire fences. It seemed the local people had enjoyed a festival of litter, and had decorated the bushes and sidewalks cheerfully with plastic bags, empty beer cans and newspapers.

As I slipped and slid along ice-coated sidewalks that clearly had never seen a snow blower, I almost got run over by a young woman in a Chrysler as she careened around the corner in a hell-for-leather fashion. She was too busy on her cell phone to notice me jump back into the slush. By the time I made it to the intersection of West Side and Danforth, where Danforth Plaza and Jollibee are located. I had stopped whistling and scowled as I thought this trip had better be worth it.

Rubbing shoulders with the liquor mart next door and a Rite Aid pharmacy, with the roar of traffic close by, it seemed a strange choice of location for a fast-food restaurant. I splashed towards the door with low expectations and pushed inside.

Well. I can only say it was simply wonderful. It was like taking a spaceship to Manila and being dumped out onto the tarmac. Everything felt exactly right. The bee was smiling outside, just as he should be, and inside, the place was jammed, and I do mean jammed, with about 8,000 Filipino-American families! Well perhaps I exaggerate a little but there were no tables that were not full. Working men, old women, children. A baby dangled bandy legs from high up in the air in his baby seat. Everyone looked happy, no annoying music played and, even better, people spoke in soft voices and no one was shouting at the top of their lungs in that awful, loud, nasal way that some people do. I was in heaven.

In front of me, a line of 18 people waited to order so I had a while to inspect the menu and the other customers. I was immediately struck by the fact that I was literally the only non-Asian person in the room. Even the counter staff looked Filipino to me.

The menu looked similar to that in the Philippines. Steamed Rice, ChickenJoy, Noodles, Spaghetti. Breakfast Joy. I didn’t see Bangus on the menu but it might have been there.

I chose the safe option of a ChickenJoy meal and sat down at an empty table. The fried chicken was pleasant. Crispy outside, moist inside, and authentic. I just felt that it didn’t taste exactly the same as in the Philippines. It seemed more bland somehow. I was also given the usual strange, brown gravy concoction to pour over my rice. I don’t usually like that, but at least it had a pleasing aroma of herbs and smelt appetizing. When I last sniffed the stuff in the Philippines, it smelt of poison.

But it wasn’t the food that entranced me. I fell in love with the ambiance, which was just enough to make me feel nostalgic, and to be honest I think that this is why most people were there. Everyone seemed more friendly than in some other fast-food places I could mention. And besides, to be honest I prefer the happy bee mascot over that unsettlingly freakish red haired clown and his garish golden arches. I got a second drink and absorbed the atmosphere. If I ignored the snow outside and half closed my eyes it was like being in Manila with the heat turned down. I was very happy.

The lady manager, Ms. Manel Belocura, smilingly agreed to speak to me and confirmed that although the ingredients and menu were very similar to the Philippines, there were some items that were not offered, specifically the “Jolly Hotdog” due to problems sourcing the ingredients. She confirmed to me that the majority of the clientele seemed Filipino, and that the majority of the staff had some Filipino blood in their family. I wondered if this was because of a requirement to speak Tagalog, for example.

“Oh no,” she said. “Everyone orders in English and everyone speaks English when at work. I don’t know why that is.”

I inquired whether there had been much excitement when the store opened in 2012.

“Oh yes.” She smiled and gestured around the corner of the building. “People stood in line right around here. There was a big line.” She explained that the area had been chosen because of a large Filipino population close by, and indeed I had noticed a store on the west side selling Filipino jewelry. It all made sense. She excused herself and hurried away.

I drained my second drink. It was time to go. Even the man who came to clear up my plastic tray smiled at me. I was sad to leave. But I promise you. If they ever turn up the heat to about 100F and start selling ‘bagoong,’ then I’m going to live there.

John Nicholson lives in New York and visits his fiancée in the Philippines several times a year. He loves the Philippines and makes a point of visiting Jollibee on those occasions.

The restaurant at its busiest: Never an empty table

The restaurant at its busiest: Never an empty table

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