Fast Food, Without a Side of Guilt
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because this is what fast food should look like.
We’re in Los Angeles’ Watts, at a new restaurant by renowned chefs Roy Choi (think Kogi BBQ taco trucks) and Daniel Patterson, most recently of San Francisco’s acclaimed Coi. “Food is the new revolution,” declares 44-year-old Anthony Adams, a part owner, just a beat after he tells me about the time he was shot five times with an AK-47 “right there,” with a gesture toward the next block.
LocoL, a healthy fast-food joint that launched earlier this year, is distancing itself from places like Chipotle or Shake Shack, which, it says, are trying to make you feel like you’re not eating fast food. LocoL is fast food, just healthier, unprocessed and not mass market. It’s going toe to toe with the food industry to challenge the status quo and “feed goodness to the world,” say the chefs. The idea is to fight food deserts and offer alternative food choices at similar prices to places like McDonald’s. In a time awash with movements about feeding America, Choi and Patterson are putting talk into action and spurning nonprofit for community-shared profit.
When you walk into LocoL, the very first thing you notice is the vibe. Bustling. Excited. Making it happen. There’s hip-hop blasting from the speakers, black-and-white decals plastered on the walls instead of traditional menus and filmed street-photography prints hung throughout. Even the seating is strategically communal, with movable wood blocks for seats and tables instead of fixed booths. Employees — clad in LocoL hoodies, T-shirts and snapbacks — are hustling, clearing trays and asking patrons if they need anything. Jeremiah Boddie, an 18-year-old staff member who’s working his way through college, says the place lives up to the hype. “It’s fun,” he says sheepishly. When I peer into the open kitchen to watch the food prep, an older woman slicing and dicing yells out a hello.
The food is pretty delicious too. I went for the crushed-veggie-and-tofu stew, with a $1 side of slaw and an orange agua fresca for another buck. For the meat-eaters out there, try a $4 fried chicken burger, some $3 (real) chicken nuggets or a breakfast sandwich of carnitas, egg and cheese.
A trio of 15-year-old boys in polo shirts from a nearby technology school chowed down on quesadilla-like “foldies.”
LocoL could very easily feel contrived. Or hipster-Brooklyn scene-y. But it’s not. This isn’t a Whole Foods–comes–to–town gentrification sort of thing. The restaurant is in the heart of Watts, and it isn’t exactly signaling a new rental market to droves of upper-middle-class folks looking to move into a new “trending” neighborhood. Nope, this is about the community. Adams, a Watts native, is one of four restaurant ambassadors who act as community liaisons and have a stake in the company that will one day turn from partial to full ownership. The chefs came to him and his counterparts when they decided to open up LocoL, which debuted with long lines and lots of customers, including Lena Dunham.
Even so, not everyone is stoked about the establishment. Adams says that there are always naysayers, but he has hope they’ll come around. And you have to wonder how long the above-and-beyond service and smiles and the lines will last once the newness fades. The founders don’t seem worried; they’ve already opened a second location in Oakland.
When I meet the tatted-up Roy Choi, he’s directing the cooks-in-training and running around the restaurant. He pauses to welcome me with a polite smile and a quick handshake, then, all business, promptly turns back to the kitchen. I kind of appreciate his thinly veiled diss of the media attention. After all, I may be writing a story, but I’m really just here to eat.