A Zero-Star Review For Fast Food Concept LocoL Starts A Media Firestorm

Opening a restaurant is a hard. So hard it’ll add a fair amount of grey hair to your head. Opening up a chain of restaurants means a lot of grey hair. You can’t be in two (or five) places at once. You have to rely on your staff — trusting that they share your ideals and work ethic. Then you hope for the best. Chefs Roy Choi and Daniel Patterson have a lot of restaurants and food trucks. They’re bankable commodities in the food world.

Instead of cashing in their hard-earned chips on more celebrity and fancier restos, they took their mettle to the world of fast food at affordable prices. The goal was good food at a good price for low-income neighborhoods, a fast food chain for the 21st century called LocoL.

As our own Ben Esch wrote of his experience back in March last year, “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.”

In his review, Esch continued to sing the praises of the Choi-Patterson experiment — raving about the chili, the cheeseburgers, and the coffee. But where LocoL really shone in his eyes were the delectable chicken nuggets.

Then I tasted the sauce those chicken nuggets were nestled on, and the dish became something else entirely…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.

One person’s opinion is a powerful weapon to enticing us to try something new. Uproxx has since covered LocoL’s model on video and in articles, as have so many others. Since Esch’s visit, LocoL has grown in popularity and started expanding beyond Los Angeles into Oakland and most recently with a roving food truck around LA. All was running swimmingly…

Until yesterday, when noted New York Times critic Pete Wells dropped a review of LocoL’s newest location in Oakland, which sent a bit of a shock through the food world. Wells gave the Oakland installation Zero Stars, meaning the whole experience was “poor, fair or satisfactory.” Suffice it to say, the writer had a markedly different experience at the Oakland branch than Esch had in Watts.

Wells first salvo is worth noting, as his overarching point seems to be that Locol’s new location isn’t a barren landscape and deserves to be held to higher standards:

Locol sits on a small triangular plaza of tables and folding chairs. Seated at one of them, you can see a taqueria, a sandwich shop, a home-style Taiwanese place, a West African and Caribbean grill, a Mexican restaurant, a beer-conscious brasserie and a branch of Umami Burger. At lunchtime the week before Christmas, they were all busy.

Admittedly this does not sound like an Oakland neighborhood that Chefs Choi and Patterson would call an urban “food desert.” It’s hard not to give Wells the point here. Oakland has no shortage of economically depressed neighborhoods, making this thriving spot seem like an odd choice. And according to Wells’ review LocoL’s “partners have plans” to bring branches to more food desert-y parts of Oakland anyway. This begs the question of whether LocoL’s management is looking to capitalize on buzz or stay true to its founding ethos of bringing faster, healthier, and cheaper food to places that don’t already have it.

Wells goes on to find faults with the cheeseburgers and Esch’s beloved chicken nuggets.

Locol’s chicken is an amalgam of chicken bits invisibly bound together. Inside a thin sheath of fried coating, this composite of ground meat is mysteriously bland and almost unimaginably dry.

According to Wells the burger “needs all the help it can get” and he further damns the nugs by wishing they “didn’t exist.” But the worst snipe was saved for LocoL’s chili. Wells claimed that the chili was so un-seasoned and that “supermarkets sell canned chilis that are seasoned more persuasively.” Ouch.

Wells closes out by asking whether Chefs Choi and Patterson “see their target audience as problems to be solved, not customers to be pleased.” Esch and Wells did agree on one thing though, evidently the coffee is excellent. And cheap at $1 per cup.

Of course, the (food) world waited with bated breath for Chefs Choi or Patterson to respond to the first zero star review of their combined careers. This morning, Chef Choi took to social media to pen (or whatever you call it these days) a tempered response to Wells’ take down. He opens by “welcoming” the review and admitting that some people will “love” LocoL and some will “hate” it. Choi continues that “His [Wells] criticisms are a reflection of us and the nerve that LocoL touches. And our imperfections.”

We all know the food is not as bad as he states. Is it perfect? NO. But it’s not as bad as he writes. And all minorities aren’t criminals either. And all hoods aren’t filled with dangerous people either. 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..

This begs the question — do restaurants like LocoL deserve to be held to the same haute-cuisine standards that a New York Times critic is used to? Is it even worth his time going to place like LocoL? Should there be a merit badge for trying to change the game, even when Choi and Patterson seem so insistent on being judged on their food alone? Would you care what Pete Wells thought about Big Macs or Arby’s? It also has to be asked, how many of LocoL’s target demo is even going to read Wells’ review?

Naturally, Twitter reacted:

One user agreed with our team about the Watts location:

Interestingly, many of the tweets judged Wells for elitism. But if Choi and Patterson (both of whom are surely wealthier than Wells) built a chain restaurant in a plaza full of ethnic restaurants, as Wells describes, wouldn’t that make them the gentrifiers? It’s an interesting conversation, which will surely continue as LocoL decide what, if any, pivots to make.

You can read Chef Choi’s full post below.

(Via The New York Times)