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I ate my way through the menu at Tampa Bay’s first Jollibee

Our food critic visited the Filipino fast-food restaurant famous for Chickenjoy and more.

PINELLAS PARK — What does nostalgia taste like?

If you grew up in the Philippines with Jollibee, it probably tastes a lot like Chickenjoy, the crispy fried chicken at the popular fast-food chain that just debuted in the Tampa Bay area in January.

The opening was kind of a big deal. That is, if you consider hundreds of die-hard fans camping outside on the sidewalk the night before the restaurant’s hyped grand opening a big deal. Sleeping outside in the winter — even if it is a Florida winter — for the promise of sugary spaghetti and fried chicken? That’s some real dedication.

The hype doesn’t appear to have waned. Drive by around dinnertime on a weekday or pretty much any time on the weekends and there will likely be a line out the door, sometimes wrapped around the building, which sits near the corner of Park Boulevard N and 40th Street N in Pinellas Park.

The opening marks the 40th Jollibee location in the United States, part of an ambitious expansion for the brand, which hopes to reach 150 locations by 2023. It’s the second location for Florida (the other one is in Jacksonville) and the restaurant landed in Pinellas Park following pleas from the roughly 22,000 Filipinos who live in the Tampa Bay area (4,000 of them reside in Pinellas Park alone).

Jollibee occupies an interesting place in the Filipino culinary canon. Much of the menu reads like dishes plucked from any number of fast-food restaurants, but there are also clear references to the country’s cuisine. I’m a big fan of Filipino fare, but until last week, I had never stepped foot inside a Jollibee.

Curious as ever, I decided to try everything (well, almost everything) on the menu. The restaurant hasn’t rolled out all of its signature dishes at the Pinellas Park location yet, and the menu I sampled is an abbreviated version of the menu available elsewhere. Breakfast, I’m told, is coming soon, as are a few other specialties, like the cult favorite Filipino dessert Halo Halo.

One thing I saw no shortage of were eager and overjoyed diners, with everyone from large families to teenagers on dates digging into the restaurant’s signature paper boxes of food and large buckets of fried chicken.

And there was the phrase I heard, again and again: “It tastes just like home.”

Palabok Fiesta

Palabok Fiesta, a traditional Filipino noodle dish covered in garlic sauce, crushed pork rind, shrimp and egg. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

If you’ve ever had the Filipino dish pancit, this will ring familiar. Thin rice stick noodles, sometimes called bihon, get topped with a thick and shrimpy-tasting garlic sauce, nuggets of ground pork, crispy crushed pork rinds and two slices of a hard-boiled egg ($5.49). It’s an oddly elevated dish for a fast-food joint, but no complaints here: It’s tasty and filling.

Jollibee regulars in the know will snap open a bright yellow pack of lemon juice (dispensed here like ketchup packets) and sprinkle it over the dish. It adds a nice little zing and a bit of extra dimension to the plate, although I was also fine without it. One tip: Eat this fairly quickly. If it sits out too long, the already thick sauce takes on a gloopy consistency pretty fast.

Jolly Spaghetti

Jolly Spaghetti, topped with Jollibee's signature sweet-style sauce, loaded with chunky slices of savory ham, ground meat and hot dog. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

For what it’s worth, people really love this stuff. I am just not one of those people.

Picture a big bowl of SpaghettiOs, and you’re almost there. But first, throw in some banana ketchup and up the sugar content, sub in thick spaghetti-style pasta, toss in some chunks of hot dog (“sausage”) and then top it all off with a tiny mountain of grated cheese. Voila! Jolly Spaghetti ($5.99).

I tried really hard to think of an occasion when this saccharine-sweet, over-the-top medley might be appealing. It’s a popular party dish in many Filipino households, but even during — or after — a night of heavy drinking, I’m not sure I can see this being my thing.

But hey, judging by the number of folks chowing down on boxes of the stuff, I’m clearly outnumbered. Go try it for yourselves.

Chickenjoy

The chain's signature fried chicken is the Chickenjoy. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

Sometimes, a dish’s name just fits so perfectly. Arguably the restaurant’s most popular item, this fried chicken is a thing of real fast-food beauty. I feel a lot of joy for it.

Available in buckets and family packs, as well as one-, two- and six-piece combos, it’s served either regular or spicy. (Get the spicy.) When I dined here, I got the two-piece combo ($7.78), which featured a drumstick and thigh, both enveloped in a thin golden shell that was shatteringly crisp and crunchy but not greasy. Inside, the dark meat was incredibly juicy and flavorful, with a warm lingering heat but nothing so hot that it left anything beyond a slight tingle on my lips.

I’m going to go on the record and say that this chicken is among the best fast-food fried chicken I’ve ever had.

Chicken Sandwich Deluxe

The Chicken Sandwich Deluxe is a chicken breast fillet on a brioche bun with a garlic aioli sauce, lettuce and tomatoes. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

In a world currently obsessed with the other chicken sandwich (I’m looking at you, Popeyes), the bar for the genre is pretty high. Does this version measure up? Not quite as well as some others, but it’s a perfectly acceptable, if average, chicken sandwich. Here, you’re dealing with thick breast meat that’s flavorful and wrapped in a crunchy shell that’s thicker and not quite as flavorful as the Chickenjoy coating. The deluxe version ($4.99) is the way to go, nestled on a brioche bun and slathered with aioli, lettuce and tomatoes.

Amazing Aloha Yumburger

The Amazing Aloha Yumburger [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

If you belong to the team of people who think serving pineapple on top of a pizza is akin to blasphemy, you might want to skip ahead to the next item. But if you’re like me (yes, I’m a pineapple-on-pies kind of gal), this one’s for you.

I can’t tell you what’s in the restaurant’s special sauce (though it tastes very similar to honey mustard). I also can’t tell you what they put in the beef patties. (Is it MSG? Sazon? Fairy dust?) What I can tell you is that an allergen checklist provided by the company has a check mark next to “fish” for this burger, so I’m guessing maybe shrimp paste or fish sauce, but that’s just a theory.

What I do know is that this burger ($5.99) is delicious. Topped with melted cheese, crispy strips of bacon and a thick slice of juicy pineapple, the burger meets the perfect balance of sweet and savory, salty and fruity. You know, if you’re into that kind of thing.

Adobo rice

This was one of my favorite items on the menu. I love a good adobo, the Filipino dish of meat — often chicken or pork — braised in a vinegary bath rich with garlic and soy sauce until it’s fall-apart juicy, sticky and incredibly flavorful. This rice ($1.29) takes on the characteristic tang of the dish, complete with tiny chunks of pork throughout.

Mashed potatoes and gravy

Remember those instant mashed potatoes from a box you had as a kid? These are a pretty spot-on imitation ($2.99). They’re fine, though they do have a gummy, almost chalky texture. The gravy — a super salty and savory sauce — helps mask the texture a little bit, but ultimately I’d pass on these.

Pineapple Quencher

When I dined here, I had an 8-year-old to help me navigate the menu. The first thing I did was take one sip of this saccharine-sweet pineapple drink ($2.29) and pass it on. Like drinking the syrup from a can of crushed pineapple, it was way too sweet for my taste. But for an 8-year-old? It was a dream, and gone in just a few minutes. I can’t imagine what that sugar crash must have looked like.

Peach mango pie

The sweet and flaky Peach Mango Pie. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

Buttery hand pies filled with tart peaches and juicy Philippine mangoes and a whole lot of sugar — what’s not to love? Break one of the piping-hot pies ($2.49) open and it’s a gooey, delicious mess of fruity, sugary heaven. I ordered one of these to share and quickly very much regretted that decision. I could have eaten three just by myself.

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