• U.S.

A New Fast-Food Invasion

4 minute read
Joel Stein

After its first lap, globalization gets really interesting. The stuff you invented–in this culinary case, fast-food hamburgers, fried chicken, pizza and doughnuts–gets sent out into the world, is replicated by other countries and then comes back to you all crazied up, like a giant game of telephone. And if you hold that piece of Filipino fried chicken up to your ear and are really quiet, you can hear what the rest of the world thinks about us.

Not long after we invented fast food, we ran out of Americans to serve it to, so we opened McDonald’s on the Champs Elysées, in Tokyo’s Ginza district and in Guatemala City’s Zona Viva. Then those countries opened competitors–local fast-food restaurants making burgers, chicken wings and fries. And now those mimeographed restaurants are opening franchises in the U.S.

Jollibee, with more than 1,400 stores in the Philippines and 11 branches in California, makes McDonald’s look like a funeral parlor. Its mascot is a jolly bee, and the restaurants are blindingly happy, all giant, shiny yellow blocks, as if they were designed by an architect from Legoland. Even if you gave Walt Disney all the ecstasy in the world, he would not have come up with this. America, according to Jollibee, is clearly a place of childlike optimism. Jollibee’s two most popular items are called the Yumburger and the Chickenjoy. The Yumburger has a weird, plasticky dollop of French dressing in the middle. The crisped-up French fries are dry inside and taste as if they weren’t just double fried but dunked in oil four or five times. The fried chicken is halfway decent, but the inflated, happy fakeness of Jollibee makes you feel that the only American its Filipino owners have ever seen is Pamela Anderson.

FamilyMart, the 7-Eleven of Japan (which is confusing, since 7-Eleven Inc. is now owned by a Japanese company), has opened 12 stores in California under the excessively excited name Famima!! Its vision of America is pretty complimentary: we’re an upscale!!, modern!!, clean!!, cheery!! bunch. Although it has plenty of Asian items, the chain pushes its prepackaged but fresh-pressed panini as well as microwavable pastas. And damn if it didn’t improve on the Twinkie: its packaged dessert with a chocolate-covered banana topped with whipped cream and rolled in a vanilla cake is perfect convenience-store food.

Maybe it’s just that Hispanic culture has washed over the U.S. so completely, but it seems as though Guatemala’s Pollo Campero, which has stores in six states and D.C., really gets us. There’s a stripped-down masculinity to its shops, a friendly bluntness. It has good fried chicken too–moist but not greasy. And the Grilled Chicken Bowl mocks KFC’s gloppy layered Rice Bowl: Pollo’s is a mixture of chicken, beans, rice, cilantro, onions and salsa fresca over red rice that is one of the best fast-food dishes I’ve ever had. The restaurant doesn’t quite understand what a biscuit is (yes, Pollo’s is fluffy, but it’s hard on the outside, without even a faux butteriness), and the fries are dry and bland. Still, the chicken and the overall vibe are so right that if this is what Latin America thinks America is, then I can’t understand why we’re having so much trouble down there.

Beard Papa’s is the Dunkin’ Donuts of Japan, only it has replaced fried dough with cream puffs on steroids. It opened its first U.S. store in 2003 and has been invading mall spots. Inside each store, Japanese women in uniforms push down on metal levers to plop rich, creamy custard mixed with whipped cream into oversize profiterole shells. Like so much of Japanese culture, Beard Papa’s has taken our creation and refracted it through the mythological wholesomeness of America in the 1950s–which is just what you want fast-food dessert to taste like.

All this foreign American food seems campy fun–bright, sweet, smiley and likable. Even in a world where so many hate and fear us, they still want to be like us. To them, it seems, we’re a happy, efficient, fun bunch of guys, even if we act like total jerks when it suits us. They’ve figured it out: we’re frat boys. And we like to eat like them.

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