Machine-Cooked Pasta at Irvine's Pastagina

A robot vacuums our carpet when we aren't home. With a button push, a metal box in our kitchen turns a frozen, inedible block into a hot meal. We don't go bowling anymore. Instead, we mimic the motion with a handheld remote that sends a virtual ball hurtling towards virtual pins. And last night, I went to a restaurant called Pastagina where my pasta dinner was cooked by a machine.

That's right. A machine. One that was designed and built specifically for a single purpose: To transform dry pasta into perfectly al dente in the time it takes for a Cup Noodle to steep.

When I ordered, a chef (I use the term loosely) took a pre-measured fistful of uncooked spaghetti and dropped it down a funnel. The funnel was on top of a metal box that could be easily mistaken for a soft-serve ice cream dispenser. As if acknowledging its payload, a circular light on the machine turned on, not unlike HAL 9000 before it turned murderous.

What occurs inside this contraption then is a mystery. My friend thinks pressure cooking is involved. But I hold on to the fantasy that within its confines, an army of Oompa Loompas toils over tiny boiling pasta pots while singing a merry tune.

But whatever the machine does, it did it in three minutes. Afterwards, the cooked noodles were shot out the bottom chute, violently expelled like shotgun blast. It's caught by a sieve and then dumped onto a saute pan, where simmering sauces sat.

After a quick toss with tongs to lubricate, the pasta was plated and served.

I approached my steaming dish of noodles with skepticism, as I do with all foods that start with a gimmick. But with one slurp, I saw a glimpse of a bright future where all pastas are precisely cooked to "al dente" by machines.

It's a future where no single strand is limp or lifeless; where the spaghetti is springy and full of personality. And the sauce I chose -- a bright mix of cheese, garlic and tomato ($4.90) -- worked to highlight the bounce.

Penne and fusilli were also available as choices, both similarly processed to the correct degree of done-ness. Morsels of smoky Italian sausage and mushroom ($6.90) paired well with the penne, which wasn't surprising.

What was surprising were the mini-baguettes that come free with every dish. It possessed a crackly crust and airy crumb to rival the best Little Saigon banh mi -- the kind of bread ideal for mopping up sauce, or saved for later when you can get a hold of some butter.

Just as it's trying to start a trend, Pastagina also kowtows to one by offering Pinkberry-style frozen yogurt for dessert. Theirs is a delicate balance of the milky and the tart -- perfect with, yes, berries.

Coincidentally, the yogurt is also piped out of a machine. But that's just as well. The longer we can keep them to food preparation, the longer it will be before the machines conquer our world and turn us into human batteries.

Pastagina (949) 451-9230 6368 Irvine Blvd. Irvine, CA 92620


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