NOT JUST BURGER AND FRIES: THE 2003 ASIAN FAST FOOD REPORT
Hong Kong has enjoyed a rather undeserved reputation for many years as an Asian gastronomic capital. If you ever find yourself there, don't just make a bee-line for dim sum restaurants. The most exotic Asian fare may be lurking - rather nastily - at the corner McDonald's.
JOLLIBEE'S -THE FILIPINO MCDONALD'S
The Golden Arches cast a long shadow over much of Asia, but not, apparently, in the Philippines. That's because the Filipinos love their own burger chain, Jollibee's, which has almost twice the number of burger outlets in the Philippines compared to McDonald's.
Curious, I went to a Jollibee's today for the first time. I'm in Hong Kong. According to 2002 figures, there are over 150,000 Filipino maids working in Hong Kong. Their favorite fast food places are Jollibee's and Kentucky Fried Chicken, where you will often see them hobnobbing with American Mormon missionaries on Sundays.
Jollibee's corporate font and its logo (a cartoon bee) look rather home-made, but perhaps that's why the Filipinos like it. It doesn't remind them of super-slick corporate America. Jollibee's competes with McDonald's on the same level: burgers, fries, shakes, sausage "McMuffins"(Jollibee's calls them something else), ice-cream sundaes, and a peach mango pie that is smaller than McDonald's apple pie, but has the same crust, shape and packaging.
The chain may emulate McDonald's, but it doesn't stop there. You can also get fried chicken, spaghetti and rice dishes. It's like going to KFC, Panda Express and Sbarro's all at the same time. Comparisons to US franchises aside, the menu is uniquely Asian and unmistakably Filipino: the chain's slogan is "Langhap-Sarap: So Jollibee" (in Tagalog, it means "aroma" and "taste"). The woman next to me was eating a rice vermicelli dish with fried meat topping which I later learned was called Palabok Fiesta. I looked it up on the website, which says it contains, among other things, flaked smoked fish, toasted garlic, pork cracklings, and hard boiled eggs. You squeeze a lime over it. We're not in Kansas anymore.
Jollibee's attracts a lot of Filipino maids, and most of the clients in the store during my visit were young Filipino women babysitting their charges. I didn't see any Hong Kong Chinese people in there. I saw a greasy white American guy preaching to a Filipino guy about L.A. and how much film stars make, but he wasn't eating anything. The store is the only place in Hong Kong where the service people greeted me in very good English (because they are Filipino). I almost dropped dead from shock.
I had an Aloha Burger, which resembles the Hawaiian burger that they offer at Mickey D's in Hawaii, with a slice of pineapple. The bacon was a kind of thick fried British style bacon (not American streaky bacon) and was pretty good, but the runny cheese tasted fake and there wasn't any ketchup or onion. The sesame seed bun and overall proportions resemble a McDonald's burger, but without the little onion bits and ketchup, the sandwich tasted rather greasy and bland. Still, it was way better than Hardee's, which lives on as a greasy hell hole in Hong Kong.
I'm sure I didn't have the best item in the house, so if anyone can recommend their favorite Jollibee's product, send an e-mail.
Jollibee's has also been expanding into the US market, opening a handful of stores in California. The corporation says they are trying to seep into American consciousness, but that remains to be seen because don't forget, Cal is the land of Fast Food Legends and King Taco!
PIZZA HUT AND MCDONALD'S - A LA CANTONAIS
Continuing with the general theme of discovering how fast food chains cater to local tastes (or what they believe are local tastes), one has to examine the Pizza Hut menu in Hong Kong. It's a veritable Rosetta stone of local culture. I should have it framed.
The first Pizza Hut in Hong Kong opened in 1981. I don't know what they served then, but they sure serve some strange stuff now. We get flyers in the mail about their latest delivery offerings. One of our favorites is "Prawn Salad Pizza". You wouldn't have guessed since its topping includes prawns, salad cream, potato, dill, toasted sliced almonds, and this weird ricotta-type cheese that wasn't ricotta because it tasted like it was concocted in a lab. The whole melange tasted great, but you sure ain't eating pizza. More like some kind of fusion fantasy sweet cheese pie. They discontinued it after a season. When they brought it back a year later, we were ecstatic. After all, this is a taste so odd that you can't achieve it in your own kitchen.
In college, this woman I knew used to sneer at California Pizza Kitchen's Thai BBQ chicken pizza. "Pizza," she declared with her mid-Western disdain, "must only be topped with sausage or pepperoni. Everything else is off limits." She thought it was scandalous that I liked Hawaiian pizza, and said "no true American" would eat it.
Well, if you're of her ilk, you better stop reading now, because it only gets worse from here.
Once, we got the "Spanish Love Pizza" (translated from the Cantonese). The flyer had hearts all over it but the woman on the phone could not tell us what the ingredients were. When it arrived, we opened the box and peered into it rather indulgently. After all, you never know what you're going to get.
"What's that on the top?"
"I've never seen a bright yellow pizza."
"You know, I think it's rice."
"Oh, I get it. Spanish pizza - it's supposed to be paella."
It was a pizza with no tomato sauce or cheese on it. Instead, it was simply smeared with scoops of thick, yellow rice and studded with squid, shrimp, and other junk. This is the kind of surreal pizza Hunter S. Thompson and his buddies should order if they are zoning out on barbiturates. Not that it tasted really bad, of course, but you wouldn't order it again.
Unfortunately, we were never in the right mood for "Thai Pork Cheek Pizza". "Pork cheek" is the soft part of the pig's head that some Asian meat-lovers crave (the same aficionados who love pig's ears and fish eyeballs). With a fast food chain, you'd be lucky if they really gave you pork cheek and not something that was destined for the Whiskas factory across the border. I wanted to keep the flyer 'cos it looked so gross but I've since lost it. If I kept every strange piece of crap that I come across in Hong Kong, thinking that it would be so funny back in the US, I would have to hire a curator.
By the way, Pizza Hut offers two sauce choices for pizza: tomato or Thousand Island. What else would go with crabstick? Here is a partial list of possible combos:
Tokyo Temptation: beef, crab stick, golden mushrooms, mushrooms, and pepperoni with Thousand Island sauce
Thousand Island Seafood: seafood, crabstick, pineapple, green peppers, carrot and Thousand Island sauce
Farmhouse Deluxe: chicken, crabstick, golden mushroom and pineapple with Thousand Island sauce
You're saying, can you get anything without Thousand Island sauce or crabstick on it? Of course. Super Supreme and the old titles are available, but are you sure you don't want some carrot on your pizza? By the way, I heard that the abominable tuna and corn pizza comes from the British, whom the Hong Kong people are only happy to emulate.
I mustn't neglect to mention that Pizza Hut also serves spaghetti meals and cream soups. Their pizza is fine, but these sides are awful. The spaghetti is always overdone and covered with a sauce that seems to be made from Campbell's soups. They've now started offering "Thai-Japanese Platter" (with tofu and fried chicken), "Smoked Pork Loin Salad", and "Seafood Linguine in Hot Wok". Other weird items include "Fish Hoops" and "Chicken Rice Doria" (chicken with Campbell soup topping, baked with rice).
My one concession is the "Mini Corn Dogs", which are perfectly fried and crispy and remind me of the real thing. And no, they aren't made from dog meat, very funny, ha ha. (Korean Editor's note: Why not?)
In the best-selling book Kitchen Confidential, restaurant chef Anthony Bourdain says you know a restaurant is going downhill when it starts deviating from its core cuisine. There is definitely speciation of the most desperate sort among the international fast food chains in Hong Kong. Even McDonald's has started serving fried chicken and rice dishes, topped with the ubiquitous Campbell's cream of mushroom sauce and broccoli.
In Singapore, McDonald's offered chicken porridge. It all tastes horrible, of course, and you just wish they would stop! I don't want broccoli or porridge at McDonald's! Geez.
Other Hong Kong McDonald's inventions:
*an apple pie that didn't have apple in it, but was filled instead with Baco's and synthetic runny cheese
*Shrimp Croquette Burger with Korean Hot Bean Paste topping
*Deep Fried Pork Cutlet Burger with Japanese Worcestershire Sauce
All of the above were utter failures in taste, if not in imagination. And, of all things, the McDonald's in Hong Kong stopped serving Quarter Pounders!
Amid this crazed cross-pollination and declining taste, one longs for the one-product-says-all perfection of - you guessed it! In-N-Out Burgers. Biting into an In-N-Out Burger under a starry sky on a warm L.A. night is like nothing else in the world. It is my favorite thing about America. Aside from Hot-Dog-On-A-Stick, that is.
Fifi is a Hong Kong based writer and our Built Boyle gastronomic guru. When not chowing down on the local fast foods of Los, she can be found at Mishima with her husband and partner in crime Bails, or noting that the Korean kalbi ribs at Kang Nam are not as good as my mom's cooking. (Korean editor's mom's note: thank you!)