Dining out with children is an exercise in situational awareness. Each experience is unique, with different variables leading to different possible outcomes, DEFCON-like in their escalating threat levels. Keen observation, forward planning and prior experience are critical in determining the proper strategy. Here at DEFCON Dining, we do the grunt work for you. It ain't always pretty.
Sometimes, you just have to let a kid eat gravy for dinner. Sometimes, the best food option is the closest one at hand. Sometimes, those two things coalesce around a place you've been meaning to try anyway. That's how we found ourselves walking into the departure lounge dining room of Jollibee one evening, later than we'd have liked, after dragging a few recalcitrant kids around a big-box store for longer than they'd have liked.
It's been a few years since Jollibee opened in the Medical Center, to significant fanfare. We've driven by innumerable times (there seems to be a relationship of exponential progression between the number of kids you have and the frequency with which you must brave a big-box store), but never stopped before. I hadn't planned to stop this time, but my wife wanted to take a minute to catch her breath before heading home for the night.
The rest of the family took one look at the menu board — tiny print, nearly impossible to read, and scattered with a handful of unfamiliar dishes — and put me in charge of ordering. I squinted a bit, and ordered "Fiesta Noodles," an Aloha Champ Burger and fries, a bucket of chicken (ChickenJoy in Jollibee parlance), and some mashed potatoes and gravy.
Ahead of and behind us, harried men collected large to-go orders, rushing home to their families with giant buckets of fried chicken. In the dining room, families spilled over booths and tables, multiple generations laughing and talking together. There was at least one screaming child. It was not my own.
We ushered our brood to a table and waited for our number. Even after it was called, there was a wait. The fried chicken came to the table dangerously hot. Starving as we were, we were forced to begin nibbling at the super-crispy skin, waiting for the meat underneath to reach a non-threatening temperature. The baby finagled a french fry, causing a momentary panic.
Still waiting on the chicken, I turned my attention to the burger. Topped with bacon and grilled pineapple, it listed decidedly sweet. More than anything, it recalled a version of the Rally burgers of my youth, an inexplicable favorite of my mother, if they'd been dredged in sugar. Odd as that sounds, it wasn't unenjoyable. We passed it around the table, and each taster repeated the look of confusion, moment of consideration and final nod of approval. Not something I'd eat regularly, but not bad.
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Next, the Fiesta Noodles. Based on some pre-dinner googling, I was pretty sure I'd correctly identified the dish as pancit palabok, a traditional Filipino rice noodle dish. Here, it comes topped with a garlicky sauce, shrimp, ground pork, crushed pork rinds, boiled eggs and parsley. My first time with the dish, I wasn't entirely certain what to expect. With a funky, dusky undercurrent and a hint of smoke, it was pretty satisfying stuff. The noodles were a bit overdone, and the crushed pork rinds lent a slightly gritty texture to the whole thing that, if you're not expecting it, can be initially off-putting. Once you reconcile with it, it's actually an interesting counterpoint to the other soft, slurpy textures.
Apparently, while my wife and I had been sampling the burger and noodles, the kids had continued stripping the chicken of its skin. Assuming it had cooled sufficiently, my wife reached into the bucket for a piece, only to retrieve drumstick after drumstick of denuded chicken. We scolded them, halfheartedly and secretly wishing we'd followed suit.
During the scolding, three things happened nearly simultaneously. Another child started screaming, and my wife dumped two successive cups of water across the table. The first spread like a burst dam across our daughter's vocabulary homework. As we were cleaning that one up, the baby reached for a cup placed too close to his reach in the rush for napkins. Attempting to avert this disaster, my wife ended up dumping most of the contents on the baby. He took it well in stride. So, too, did the rest of the patrons, who hadn't batted an eyelash either at our shenanigans or at the screaming child, who would continue to scream for a full three minutes before his father took him outside.
The momentary storm calmed. The baby drank a styrofoam cup of gravy. The kids begged for and were denied halo halo. More fathers came in for more Mary Poppins' bags full of takeout chicken. More families, loud and happy, made their way into the dining room. Breath caught, despite a few decided DEFCON moments, we made our way back into the night. We'll be back for halo halo.