Reprinted from the Los Angeles Times Op-Ed Section, January 6, 2017.
When chefs Roy Choi and Daniel Patterson opened the first LocoL near 103rd and Grape streets in L.A., they weren’t grasping for restaurant-review stars. It wasn’t about reviews; it was about bringing a sense of “We’re not forgotten-ness” to places like Watts and Oakland, where the second LocoL opened at Broadway and Grand in May. LocoL’s motto is “revolutionary fast food for everyone,” and that’s about right.
But, lo and behold, the Oakland LocoL just got what it didn’t need: a nasty critique in the New York Times food section. As part of a very occasional series on restaurants not in New York, Pete Wells wrote the review.
Wells was in the Bay Area, but he passed up the chance to review the French Laundry in St. Helena, or Quince, which just got three Michelin stars, in S.F., or the equally honored Manresa in Los Gatos. Instead, he went for LocoL, and he went for it with a vengeance.
LocoL didn’t even rate one star; Wells blasted it with “satisfactory.” He referred to a fried chicken sandwich “mysteriously bland and almost unimaginably dry…. The best thing to do with it is pretend it doesn’t exist.”
Choi responded with an eloquent post on Instagram: “The pen has created a lot of destruction over the course of history and continues to. He didn't need to go there but he did…. It compelled him to write something he knows would hurt a community that is already born from a lot of pain and struggle.”
In a text to me Choi wrote: “I ain’t mad at Pete. But, what he didn’t take into context is that none of our team ever had a job before. They didn’t deserve these harsh words as they’re trying their best every day. It’s like yelling ‘booooo’ at an elementary school musical.”
Maybe Wells decided that Choi’s and Patterson’s resumes — rife with awards, stars, books, even a movie (Jon Favreau’s “Chef” is based on Choi’s food truck) — opened LocoL to all critical comers.
In highly seasoned language, I texted Choi back. He might not be mad at Pete, I said, but I’d like to give Wells the opportunity to meet several Grape Street Crips in the Juniper Street parking lot at Jordan Downs.
Some might say my offer was rude. But so was Wells’. What Choi and Patterson went looking for in Watts and in Oakland — and what they found — is resolve, pride and hope. LocoL exists as much to support and employ these communities as to feed them. That’s what revolutionary fast food means.
In my experience — I’ve eaten at the Watts LocoL about 40 times, I’d say — the food is good. How good? Jonathan Gold, in this newspaper, ranked it No. 58 in his 2016 listing of the 101 best restaurants. I live with chef Nancy Silverton, and most of her office staff at Mozza yelled at me recently when I brought back LocoL take-out for only one of them.
Still, LocoL’s cooks and workers aren’t culinary students from the Cordon Bleu. They haven’t worked at Spago, or even at Popeye’s. As Choi said, before LocoL, many of them hadn’t worked at all.
Over a year ago, at Pizzeria Mozza, I had to do a double take at table 70. Was that Ready and Nardo from Grape Street? I know them from my reporter days (and nights) in Watts covering gangs. I didn’t expect to see them at Mozza. (A little background: In a three-star gang like the Grape Street Crips, if your name is Ready, when it comes down, you’re there.)
They were at a table with Choi, who had already hired them for LocoL and wanted them to see the way Mozza functioned. A month later, when the Watts LocoL opened, Ready moved about the place like he was the maitre d’ at Valentino. Transformations like that is what LocoL is all about.
If you want stars, go to Providence or Melisse, or if you’re in the Bay Area, go to Atelier Crenn or Saison. If you want to feel good, eat way-better-than-usual fast food and brag to your friends about being in on a movement, then go to LocoL in Oakland or Watts.
By foodie standards, LocoL’s “satisfactory” rating was bad news. But, you know, that’s the only thing I can’t fault Wells on: LocoL satisfies.