First Look: Roy Choi’s LocoL Comes to Life in Watts

Roy Choi welcomes crowds at LocoL in Watts
Roy Choi welcomes crowds at LocoL in Watts
Garrett Snyder

The line along East 103rd Street stretched down the block. Mayor Eric Garcetti, film director Jon Favreau and actress Lena Dunham were in attendance. Old-school R&B and hip-hop pumped out of loudspeakers onto the street. The sense of excitement and anticipation was palpable. Unless you were familiar with the multifaceted backstory of LocoL — the ambitious restaurant project from chefs Roy Choi and Daniel Patterson, which aims to send shockwaves through America’s fast food ecosystem — it would be hard to imagine that all this energy stemmed from a single restaurant opening in Watts. Yet it was in this overlooked and underserved neighborhood in South Central L.A. that Choi and Patterson saw the biggest potential for change.

The menu at LocoL fulfills the promise that Choi had made to 2015 Indiegogo backers in a campaign that raised more than $125,000 and, before that, a talk that Patterson (chef of San Francisco’s Coi) gave at the 2014 MAD Symposium where he aspired to open a concept that had the power to help impoverished communities by offering healthful, affordable food. At LocoL there are $4 cheeseburgers, topped with scallion relish and tangy orange sauce, $3 chicken nuggets, $6 bowls of chili smothered with crushed crackers and cheese, $1 cups of braised greens or beef-onion gravy, and $2 handheld quesadillas called “foldies,” with fillings such as carnitas and BBQ turkey.

Cheeseburger and side dishes at LocoL
Cheeseburger and side dishes at LocoL
Garrett Snyder

If you’re familiar with the cooking of either of these two respected chefs, it’s somewhat easy to spot the veteran tweaks and tricks that allow LocoL’s food to boast the flavor of chef-driven establishments while being cheap enough to compete with global fast food chains. The fried chicken patty is moist and juicy, formed from minced bits of chicken and cut with a small amount of grain, then crowned with a wonderfully acidic slaw. The umami-rich burger patty was engineered with similar ingenuities (see: meat garum). The bright and colorful sauces, a highlight for anyone who’s eaten at Kogi or Chego, are balanced and deeply flavorful. Even the burger buns, designed by Tartine baker Chad Robertson, have the subtle yeasty tang of properly risen bread.

But while the food is interesting and compelling enough to warrant its own story, what commands your attention most at LocoL are the people: the 50 or so local residents, nearly all African-American, who make up the dedicated and enthused staff. The community members who gather in the restaurant’s free-form dining room, made up of large wooden blocks in various size and shapes, or the passers-by who peer in through large screen windows to see what’s happening inside (the idea to replace glass windows with mesh screens might be Choi and Patterson’s most brilliant move of all). It's a place that seems acutely designed to draw you in from the street.

As the grand excitement of its Martin Luther King Jr. Day opening fades into a normal business routine, it will be intriguing to see if LocoL — perhaps the country’s most invigorated and purposeful socio-culinary experiment — can effect the change it seeks in Watts, as well as in planned future locations like San Francisco's Tenderloin neighborhood and Oakland. But for now, LocoL’s smashing debut looks nothing short of the restaurant's tagline: revolutionary. Because if there’s one thing that makes the future of fast food seem palatable, it’s a $4 cheeseburger that leaves you feeling good long after you eat it.

LocoL, 1950 E. 103rd St., Watts; welocol.com.

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