Jollibee – Reading

Jollibee Reading, 81 Broad Street, Reading, RG1 2AP.

Opening hours: Every day, 10am – 10pm.

A good few years after it was cool to get into it, I recently started watching Anthony Bourdain’s foody CNN travelogue show Parts Unknown on Netflix. In it, the ineffably cool and now sadly very dead former chef saunters around the world being incredibly charming and telling you all about places you’ve mostly never been and food you’ve mostly never eaten.

It makes you want to travel. And eat. Which is all well and good if you’re a jet-setting sort with an adventurous spirit. A modern day Marco Polo, Ernest Hemingway or Michael Portillo. With the means, the time and the verve to tour the planet seeking out new adventures, soaking up new experiences and learning how life is lived elsewhere from all sorts of endearing, enlightened and incredible new people.

Let’s say, however, you’re a schnook from Reading. A schnook like me. Don’t get me wrong, readers. I’ve been about. I’ve been to Tenerife, Lanzarote and Gran Canaria. I’ve seen a fair bit of the world. Trouble is, ask anyone unfortunate enough to have gone abroad with me and they’ll tell you that I’m not exactly a great travel companion. Ask my missus and she’ll probably put it lot more succinctly than that.

I’m generally okay between three and eight drinks on day one and then fairly hit and miss for the following however-many-days. Plus – and you’ll like this – I get a little bit homesick. Yep, really. A fully-grown man (from Reading) gets homesick. I do. I miss my cats. I miss my bed. I’m not ashamed to admit it – I miss my crisp cupboard. I’m no Marco Polo, Ernest Hemingway or Michael Portillo. I’m not even Susan Calman FFS.

Instead I watch TV travel shows in a vicarious capacity. At home. Often in bed, lying next to a cat and eating crisps. I pretend I could go to Laos or Venezuela or Gabon. I imagine myself strolling around them all, casually talking to local journalists, writers and chefs, tapping into their local knowledge, learning of the area’s culture, its history, its gastronomy. Instead of doing what I’d actually do, which would almost exclusively revolve around sitting in the hotel room watching dubbed episodes of Family Guy and eating paprika Lay’s bought from a vending machine at reception.

I’m two series’ into Parts Unknown and have so far fantasised idly about eating ceviche in Lima and ox heart tagine in Tangiers. But that ain’t gonna happen. I’ll likely just keep on munching on T-Bone Steak-flavoured Roysters (6 bags for a quid in B&M) and pickled eggs (6 eggs for two quid in B&M) in Tilehurst.

A couple of episodes in, however, an opportunity arose. I was presented with a chance to do a little pseudo-Bourdaining, but from the comfort of my own town. In LA, Tony and the crew visit a Filipino fast food restaurant. They visit a Jollibee. And then again in Manila in a later episode.

We have a Jollibee here in Reading! A branch of the ‘McDonald’s of the Philippines’ opened in September 2021.

There you go. More than 500 words into the introduction I finally get to the point.

“It’s true that I lie to my daughter and tell her that Ronald McDonald has been implicated in the disappearance of small children, that I sneer at fast food, revile it at every opportunity. But I am also a hypocrite because to me – Filipino chain Jollibee is the wackiest, jolliest place on Earth.”
– Tony B

Let’s see how wacky and jolly the Jollibee on Broad Street is, shall we…?

First impressions when you go in are that it’s not particularly wacky or jolly. Aside from a young couple and a man eating on his own, the only other people outside the kitchen were two slightly impatient-looking Deliveroo drivers (is there any other kind?). Near-empty rooms are rarely wacky nor jolly. And never both.

While it was quiet out front, out back it was party time. The staff were having a whale of a time laughing, joking and singing. Which is a little wacky and more than a little jolly. I was encouraged. If a teeny tiny bit irritated by all the shrieking.

You can order at the till or via three rather sticky touchscreens near the entrance, depending on your thoughts on hygiene and public health. Choose between fried chicken, hamburgers, chicken burgers, hot dogs, rice bowls, chicken tenders and the chain’s most famous export/creation – Jolly spaghetti.

Style-wise, there’s nothing particularly stylish or memorable about the look of the place. It’s pleasant enough and, touchscreens apart, very clean and tidy. The wooden tables and (mostly) wooden seating aren’t the most arse-friendly, but this is fast food. You’re not in for the long sit.

I was keen to try – but also pretty wary of – the menu’s (in)famous pasta dish. Hearing good things about the fried chicken, I went for the ‘1 Piece Spicy Chickenjoy with Jolly Spaghetti meal’ for £8.49. This particular option comes sans liquid, so factoring in the super sweet pineapple juice, it set me back a few pennies over a tenner.

Here’s what it all looked like…

A little underwhelming, no? That was my initial thought as I poked around a bit. My second thought, as I adjusted the plastic tray and prepared to dig into a paper carton of spaghetti Bolognese with bits of cut-up hot dog thrown in – with a plastic fork and spoon – was that it felt quite a lot like dinnertime at HMP Pentonville.

As with prison eating, I didn’t expect to enjoy the food all that much and simply hoped I’d get through swallowing it all without having my face brutally slashed.

I needn’t have worried, though. Especially about the face slashing. My 15 minute trip to Jollibee was mercifully free of any kind of serious blade attack. Perhaps it helped that plastic knives are not provided. No, I was wrong about the food. It was… well, it was kind of bloody… nice.

The chicken is seasoned well, spicy but not daft hot. The skin and coating are pleasingly crispy and the temperature was perfect, both of which can be rarities when it comes to fried chicken, as you’ll no doubt know. Either from The Colonel or any other ranked member of the poultry-flogging armed forces. It’s just a pity it’s £3.50ish a piece here. But who cares about any of that stuff, eh? It’s the weird spaghetti you’re – sort of – interested in here, isn’t it?

“I swear to God, Michael better be stirring the sauce back at the house otherwise it’s gonna stick.”

It’s fair to say that the rogue menu designers back in Manila don’t really give a fangul about the traditions of Italian cuisine. You can’t see Gennaro Whatshisname off of the telly slinging sickly sweet banana ketchup into his spaghetti sauce. Or Whatshisname Carluccio off of stabbing himself in the stomach cutting a frankfurter up into his Bolognese and sprinkling factory-grated neon yellow cheddar all over the top.

The taste, though? Well, it’s a little disconcerting at first. But, sod it, it’s good. If anything, there wasn’t quite enough of it. I only counted seven little nubbins of wiener, which felt like a minor gip.

I can’t tell you what my ‘dining partner’ had because I ventured in alone. Bravely. Like a Reading Ranulph Fiennes or a Berkshire Bourdain. If they were out-of-shape blokes jumping on the number 17 to eat some spaghetti before pints and then blogging about it.

This is adventure. Just on a microscopic, hyperlocal scale.

In fact, if anyone has any contacts at CNN, put me in touch. I might pitch an idea to them:

‘Shit Things in Reading: Parts Exposed’.