Despite what legions of new restaurants and food trucks would have you think, it takes a little more than just sticking something in a French roll to call it a fusion bánh mì, and throwing Indian food in a tortilla doesn't make it Mexican fusion. It seems like everyone with a pack of generic taco seasonings in their space (be it truck or kitchen) is claiming to be the inventor of some glorious new hybrid cuisine, but very few of them are. The Filipino juggernaut Jollibee, on the other hand, serves some of the most visible and widespread fusion dishes around, but makes not a single mention of that fact. Inspired by their quiet innovation, and despite the warnings of several wise associates, we decided to use Jollibee spaghetti for this week's food fight. In the other corner, we have a recognized expert of pasta, chef Gino Angelini's eponymous Osteria.
Jollibee, which has 686 restaurants and one kids' show in the Philippines alone, has only a handful of locations in the L.A. area. Perhaps because of this local scarcity, the chain does not seem particularly well-known or popular among Angelenos, and we found ourselves the only non-Filipino diners on each visit. Despite the apparent homogeneity of the clientele, Jollibee's interior is a hodgepodge of influences, from the distinctly Filipino mascot to the McDonald's-style color scheme and setup, the strangely-worded names (Crispy Chickenjoy and Juicy Yumburger) to the distinctly American Top 40 on the stereo. Even Jollibee's atmosphere is fusion.
The ordering process, too, combines that same-as-everywhere counter with some sort of mind-reading: Before you even finish ordering there is a styrofoam container on the counter next to you, materialized out of thin air apparently without human assistance. Or maybe it was just made hours beforehand. Shaking off the mysterious delivery, you take your box back to your seat and open the lid, revealing a mass of noodles in red sauce covered in yellow paste, with chunks of what might be vegetables and also something meaty in the middle. As it turns out, that yellow is melted cheese of some kind, and the meat is apparently cut up hot dogs.
What is it like to eat this mess? Something of a chore, to be honest. The sauce is oddly sweet and lacks any tomato tang, and it also covers up any flavor the cheese might lend, though not the gooey texture. The mysterious hot dogs are frightening at first, and later just feel out of place. Kids, clearly, are the target demographic, and this sweet pasta combined with hot dogs is undoubtedly a hit in the 5-13 age bracket. For the rest of us, though, it ends up a little yucky.
The pasta and the atmosphere at Angelini Osteria aim at a slightly older set. There is no jovial mascot out front, no bangin' Lupe Fiasco tracks on the speakers. Instead, there are potted trees and a valet, and quiet pleasant tunes. There are waiters, too, and they bring you your food a little while after you order; there is no sorcery here. The menu is sophisticated and diverse, from grilled quail and tripe to a wide variety of pastas.
For our fight, we decided to let pappardelle stand in for spaghetti, oxtail for hot dogs, and raisins and carrots for the cheese and anonymous vegetables. It was a good call. The oxtail was meaty and tender, the noodles were cooked perfectly, and the raisins added a very interesting sweet note. It had all of the positives of a well-made stew, but served cleverly over the wide pappardelle. It was a wonderful dish, almost too satisfying to leave room for an affogato for dessert. Almost.
Our winner this week, clearly, is Angelini Osteria, even taking into account the wide price disparity between our combatants. To be honest, we were pulling for Jollibee, and it is cheap, filling, and fun for kids. For anyone else, though, it is undeniably the inferior option, and the pasta just does not work. Value is about more than size-to-price ratio; it's also about quality, environment, and taste.