There are so many things to say about Locol (currently open in Watts, California) that the food almost becomes an afterthought. The restaurant aims to offer a healthier alternative to traditional fast food with fresh, local ingredients, and is spearheaded by Coi’s Daniel Patterson and Kogi’s Roy Choi (a man so integral to the LA food scene that he was even included in the city’s pitch video to host the Olympics).
The goals of Locol are so important and noble and necessary that it almost doesn’t matter what the food tastes like. Because even if the food was awful, or just as good as normal fast food chains, Locol should be celebrated for providing affordable and nutritious food in a neighborhood where McDonald’s advertises on liquor stores.
But Locol isn’t a symbol, it isn’t a charity, and it isn’t a feel good story. Locol is — we hope — the future of fast food, and the future looks goddamn amazing.
Locol’s flagship location is at 1950 East 103rd St. in Watts — a street that was so badly burned during the 1965 riots that it was called Charcoal Alley. Like most of the city, the street still appears to be recovering from the trauma of those days. But as hard as it is to separate the restaurant from the city, and what Locol stands for from what it actually is, these distinctions are important. Because before I bit into the Locol Cheeseburg, I thought of the restaurant the same way many people probably still think of it today: a noble cause. And we don’t expect much from our noble causes; besides the warm fuzzies we feel when we give them money. Just like the stale muffin we buy at the church bake sale, or the plate of overcooked noodles we force down at the charity spaghetti feed, or the car wash we buy at the junior high marching band’s fundraiser that somehow makes our car dirtier.
But after the first bite of that cheeseburger, I wasn’t thinking about good causes or food deserts (Choi’s preferred term for neighborhoods that don’t have access to good food). I was only thinking one, very loud, and soon to be repeated exclamation:
Holy sh*t, this burger was good. Not just good for fast food; this cheeseburger would be delicious in any setting. The jack cheese actually tasted like and melted like cheese, which should not be an impressive statement for a fast-food restaurant, but most definitely is. Then there were the charred scallions with lime juice, the appropriately (if somewhat Guy Fieri-an) named “awesome sauce,” and the freshly baked bun (from Tartine Bakery’s recipe). All these parts of the Locol Cheeseburg were fantastic, but what made the burger special — and should always be the case, but so rarely is at fast-food restaurants — was the beef.
The hamburger patty was well seasoned, but spiced with enough restraint to not obscure the simple, wonderful flavor of the beef. Letting an ingredient stand on its own is a courageous move for any restaurant, and near insanity for a fast-food joint, but Locol does exactly that. This move, basic and ballsy as it may be, is the only choice when a restaurant can deliver a product that tastes as incredible as this burger.
I have had a few (not many, but a few) better cheeseburgers than the Locol Cheeseburg. But most of those cheeseburgers either punished my stomach with grease, my wallet with high prices, or my soul with pretension. The Locol Cheeseburg is just as affordable as other fast-food cheeseburgers, but it’s also healthier, because the meat is cut with a mixture of quinoa, oats, farro, and tofu. Somehow these add-ins lead to an even better product than the competition. Because the Locol Cheeseburg is better than the Big Mac, it’s better than the Whopper, and it’s even better than Five Guys. Granted, it still isn’t quite as good as a double-double “animal style” from In N Out, but — and this is an important but — the In N Out burger is only superior in the moment of consumption. That temporary satisfaction is soon replaced by lethargy and shame as that grease brick travels merrily through your guts.
After I ate the burger at Locol, I felt good. Not good like I was experiencing the afterglow of a guilty pleasure — wonderful in the moment, then very much the opposite of wonderful the moment afterwards (a phenomenon that accounts for much of the world’s fast food, online pornography, and Michael Bay movie consumption). I felt good in the sense that I was actually nourishing my body. I’m not claiming that the Locol Cheeseburg (or any cheeseburger) is healthy, but this is far from guilt-inducing junk food. Of all the discoveries I made during my visits to Locol, this one revelation shone brighter than all others: I could eat fast food without hating myself.
And all for the low price of $4.
But the cheeseburger wasn’t even my favorite dish at Locol. That distinction belongs to the chicken nugs.
Yes, the name is stupid, but when you think about it, isn’t the very idea of a chicken tender/finger/McNugget intractably stupid, anyway? Chicken has neither finger, nor tender, and most especially not McNuggets (at least not that you can find at most respectable butchers), but we still happily eat them because they’re greasy and salty and crunchy. Even if they don’t taste like chicken exactly, they still somehow taste exactly like childhood.
The nugs at Locol evoke the delicious memory of childhood chicken tenders, without the uncomfortable reality of the way this dish actually tastes at most fast-food restaurants — rubbery, bland, and prepared with all the love and professional care one would expect from a half-stoned teenager in a mandatory hairnet. Instead, these nuggets are crisp, but not too greasy, and the chicken inside is moist and flavorful, but cut with enough ancient grain to be as healthy as a deep fried bit of arbitrary chicken shape has any right being. These chicken nuggets are everything classic, and comfortable, and expected.
Then I tasted the sauce those chicken nuggets were nestled on, and the dish became something else entirely. The sauce is a “spicy buttermilk green goddess,” according to Chef Choi, and it is bright, and spicy, and wonderful. It completely changed the dish–elevating it from a childhood comfort food to something vibrant and challenging and new. The pairing of this simple dish and this complex sauce shows that Locol isn’t interested in simply giving the customer what they want, because (and I speak from considerable experience as a customer here) the customer can be pretty goddamn stupid. The customer wants taco shells made from fried chicken, and slop troughs of mashed potatoes, and Egg McMuffins day and night when they should not be eaten at any hour, really. If our obesity rates and consumer habits have proven anything, it’s that the customer wants to slowly kill themselves with large doses of bland, mediocre food, and most fast food companies are happy to oblige. But not Locol.
Locol serves chicken nuggets, but makes them with care and quality ingredients, then pairs them with a sauce that challenges palettes and expands perspectives. Not because it will make them more popular or move more nuggets — I know 8-year-old me and even 28-year-old me would be baffled into an angry pout by some of these flavors–but because it is the tastiest, and healthiest, and best food they can provide their customers.
This quality continues throughout almost the entire menu — I found the Noodleman bowl to be somewhat bland and mushy and pointless compared to other entrees I tried. But besides that admittedly healthier and vegetarian-friendly option, the rest of the dishes were wonderful.
Like the messy beef chili bowl:
Ordering chili from a fast food place is usually an encapsulation of poor decision-making and lingering regret that rivals timeshare purchases and art school degrees. But the chili at Locol was amazing — from the crisp crackers on top, the spicy hot sauce, the gooey cheese, the previously-mentioned beef, and a layer of rice at the bottom to help absorb those flavors and stretch a tasty snack into a satisfying $6 meal.
And the carnitas foldie:
Unlike most fast food restaurants, Locol gives a small portion of delicious, tomatillo salsa tinged carnitas that subtly flavors the beans beneath, instead of bamboozling the consumer with a taco filled with large quantities of low-quality, low-price pork.
Or the iced coffee:
This coffee was rich and sweetened with condensed milk, and had such a distinct hint of chocolate, that I asked Chef Choi if they added syrup to the mix. He insisted the chocolate flavor came only from the roasting of the bean and “all the weed you smoke.” This felt like the most appropriately Roy Choi of all the possible responses to my question.
I bought an iced coffee at a popular, highly rated, and annoyingly fussy coffee shop in Silver Lake for my drive to Watts. That coffee cost $4, and it was good, exactly the way it always is. This coffee shop is one of my favorite spots, a place I take out-of-town visitors to impress them with the glamour and sophistication of big town living and overpriced lattes. The coffee at Locol was better. And it only cost $1.
I have thought a lot about fast food restaurants since I ate at Locol. But as much as I dislike the food that the usual suspects produce and I detest the methods they employ, I do not think that they are evil. I do not think any business can ever truly be evil. These fast food companies simply exist in the brutal reality of capitalistic survival. Every decision they make, every corner they cut, every cheap slab of beef they order, every worker they underpay, every predatory ad campaign they run, every way they lower their bottom line (and as a result, consumer dignity) is designed to ensure their survival in a hostile world.
But because fast food companies already exist in this harsh eco-system, I sincerely hope that Locol (and the restaurants that Locol inspires) will hunt and consume the McDonald’s, and Burger Kings, and even the sick and limping Arby’s of the fast food jungle. Not just because Locol represents an important idea, not just because it offers a healthier product, and not just because it improves communities and lives, but because the food is simply better. And I want to live in a world where better always wins.
Locol is open now in Watts with franchises launching soon in Oakland and San Francisco’s Tenderloin District and plans for future expansion in Chicago, Newark, and Atlanta.