How two of Americas smartest cooks, Roy Choi and Daniel Patterson, plan to bring good food and hope into Watts and beyond with their LocoL restaurant
An impromptu breakdance circle has emerged in the parking lot. The participants spin and contort and flip, then gesture at one another in mock challenge. Among the onlookers clapping and smiling is Lena Dunham from the HBO show Girls. Its opening day at LocoL.
In truth, the more interesting story about LocoL will be written a year from now. By then, the immense ambitions of this hybrid blend of restaurant and social movement will have had time to germinate and grow. In the meantime, theres the online hype, a successful crowdsourcing campaign, the restaurants two high-profile founders, front-page newspaper articles, and a line of hundreds of curious patrons that stretches the length of a city block.
LocoL is a fast-food restaurant. Its almost possible to forget that, standing among the throngs of neighbourhood residents, chef chasers, bloggers, journalists and celebrities who have come out for the grand opening. More precisely, its a fast-food restaurant with a mission of being a healthy or at least not unhealthy alternative to existing options. This franchise, the first of its kind, is on a street corner in Watts, Los Angeles that one prominent food writer described to me as the place he would select were he asked to choose the worst corner to open a restaurant in America. It is noticeably one of only a couple of businesses servicing a large residential area, and it lies almost directly on the border between rival gang territories.
The two men masterminding this project are the chefs Roy Choi and Daniel Patterson. Both are thoughtful, wary veterans of the industry. Theyve both laboured in its trenches and ascended its peaks. Chois legacy is probably best defined by his fleet of Kogi taco trucks, which roam the streets of southern California peddling kimchi quesadillas and Korean short rib tacos. Soon after launching in 2008, they set off an international mania for gourmet street food. Atop Pattersons résumé are two Michelin stars and a spot on the Worlds 50 Best Restaurants List for his elegant, artful San Francisco restaurant, Coi. He and Choi are famous for vastly different cuisines, operating on opposite sides of the countrys most populous state. But the pair discovered their joint purpose in Copenhagen.
In 2013, under a colourful circus tent with Patterson in the audience, Choi unleashed an impassioned call to arms at the MAD Symposium an annual gathering of wide-eyed cooks, artists, farmers and activists organised by René Redzepi and the staff of his restaurant, Noma. Chois presentation focused on food deserts, places where politics and prejudice have deprived citizens of local grocery stores or markets and thus any access to fresh food or proper cooking. Places like the Los Angeles neighbourhood of Watts.
LocoL opened on 20 January, coinciding with the national holiday commemorating the birthday of American civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. King famously visited this neighbourhood 50 years ago, in the wake of the 1965 Watts Riots.
Part of what Choi and Patterson are doing in Watts is chipping away at those two bookend words: 1965 and riots. For the past half century, this neighbourhood has been defined by a six-day uprising that took place here, killing 34 and injuring more than a thousand. One measure of LocoLs success might be if the name Watts can become as synonymous with their burgers as it is with this dark chapter in LA history.
While it was an act of police violence that ignited the riots, what fuelled it was a feeling of systemic isolation and lack of opportunity for Watts residents. Unfortunately, very little has improved in the intervening years. Economic hardship persists. Today, 40% of Watts residents live in poverty. Like other economically depressed communities without access to fresh food, its citizens are at increased risk of obesity and its attendant ailments: heart disease, stroke, high-blood pressure, diabetes, cancer. But in the decades after 1965, the neighbourhoods unresolved socioeconomic problems manifested most visibly in the form of gang violence, specifically between the citys two main factions, the Bloods and the Crips.
A month before LocoLs opening, I set all delicacy aside and put the question bluntly to Choi: is Watts a dangerous neighbourhood? A bad one?
Whos saying dangerous, or whos saying bad? he replied. Thats the question, right? Is Watts Jordan Downs Project, Grape Street hood? Yes. But there are five-year-old kids right across the street. There are families. There are wonderful human beings all throughout. Are there bangers? Yeah, there are gangbangers here.
He paused for a moment before continuing: Im gonna actually answer that directly: no, its not a bad neighbourhood. This is historic Watts. This is a beautiful neighbourhood.
In 1992, former NFL superstar Jim Brown helped broker a vital peace treaty between Bloods and Crips in Watts. Brown is on hand again to cut the ribbon at LocoLs opening. The moment he makes the snip, a recording of King delivering his I Have a Dream speech begins playing on the loudspeakers. At the end of the address, the DJ cross-fades into Kendrick Lamars jabbing, staccato anthem Alright.
I catch sight of Patterson, who puts his arm around me and says: This is a surreal moment.
Surreal is a good description. Accompanying Patterson are his wife, Alexandra, and their two young children, along with the familys two enormous, cheerful great Danes. Actor and director Jon Favreau makes an appearance (Choi was a culinary consultant on his movie Chef). LocoLs community ambassadors respected members of the neighbourhood with deep knowledge of its politics and inner workings play the roles of waiters, hosts, crowd controllers and managers with the energy of proud parents. When the breakdancing starts up, Choi rushes to tape a piece of cardboard to the asphalt to serve as a makeshift dance floor. A young girl jumps into the action, and Choi smiles broadly and says to no one in particular: Thats my daughter.
Christopher Storer is a filmmaker who has been working on a documentary about LocoL for the past six months, but by his own admission, hes been powerless to resist the projects electrifying spirit. Today hes darting around capturing footage on a handheld camera, but mostly he seems to be soaking in the happy scene. The food is actually the least important thing, he says.
That may be true today, but LocoLs principals know that it cant subsist entirely on good vibes. Patterson and Choi chose specifically to start a for-profit restaurant rather than a grocery store or nonprofit organisation or community farm, because running restaurants is what theyre best at. Their oft-repeated mantra is that they want to take cooking out of the hands of corporations and put it back in the hands of chefs and cooks cooks who they have hired almost entirely from the neighbourhood. So at the end of the day, LocoLs success will depend upon it being a good restaurant.
I worry whether or not the communitys gonna love the food, Choi says. Thats the thing that keeps me up at night every night.
Vaughn Glover, LocoLs project manager, agrees. We can have all the great relationships with nonprofits and organisations we want to, he says. But if this doesnt function well as a restaurant, all that shit doesnt matter.
If youre not eating, move to thepatio! shouts an employee in a black LocoL T-shirt. Hes speaking to the herd of friends and family (and journalists) who are mingling aimlessly in the dining room. Theres not enough room for paying customers to eat.
The crowds remain outrageous throughout LocoLs opening, so I return the next day for a thorough tasting of the food. My brother and I order the majority of the two dozen items on the lunch/dinner menu.
Fundamental, of course, is the burger (known here as a cheeseburg and priced at $4). The patty a blend of mostly beef, grains and tofu, though the latter two do not detract from its meatiness is nicely charred from a proper amount of time spent on the griddle. The bun comes from a recipe created by Chad Robertson of San Francisco bakery, Tartine. Its sweet with the lightly alcoholic tang of fermentation, which comes from the addition of koji, the same beneficial mould used to make miso, sake and soy sauce. The sandwiches are pressed under a weight, compacting them slightly and giving the bread surface a uniformly toasty crunch. It is a very good burger.
Also falling in the $4 sandwich category: a veggie cheeseburger topped with spicy greens, a piquant barbecue turkey sandwich and a fried chicken sandwich. Then there are foldies, which are a cross between tacos and quesadillas. Filled with beans and cheese or shredded meat, theyre flattened and griddled until the tortillas are crisp and the fillings threaten to ooze out. There are also nugs (fried nuggets), in both chicken and vegetarian varieties. Only the poultry-free versions are available on my visit, and they arent exactly crunchy, but they serve nicely as vehicles for the excellent mustardy dipping sauce.
Yotchays are sides. They cost $1 and include choices such as slow-simmered greens, beef gravy, flat bread and fluffy white rice. Rice is a welcome addition to a fast-food menu that suddenly strikes me as an obvious omission from other chains. Here at LocoL, it fills out a chaotic but satisfying bowl of beef chilli, crumbled soda crackers, cheese and hot sauce. And, in the most surprising dish Ive ever eaten in a fast-food joint, its topped with a fragrant, chunky stew of vegetables and crushed tofu.
The food is all served hot and quickly. Its nourishing and tastes decidedly like home cooking. You dont get the sensation that calories and chemicals are being hidden insidiously behind sugar and salt, like you do with other fast food.
On the other hand, the food at LocoL does share an important characteristic with its classmates. Like a Big Mac or a Whopper or KFC fried chicken, each dish at LocoL tastes distinctive. For every item on the menu, theres something you can latch onto and crave. Theres a bracing acidity to the stir-fried noodles. Something vaguely herbaceous is in the foldies. And you can sense the presence of fish sauce and lime in the awesome sauce that coats and brightens the cheeseburgs.
Our cheeseburger and our veggie burger are really, really addictive, says Choi. Thats the biggest thing we were looking for: that addictive factor. The sauce is an emulsion of everything you want in a burger: pickle, mustard, mayo, ketchup. All of those feelings in one sauce, but its made from stewing down tomatoes, garlic, gochujang, onions, vinegar, all these things. Its really, really good.
One of the things about food in our country is that its been completely denatured, says Patterson. If you look at food from Mexico to Thailand, to China, to India, they cook with spices. They cook with deep, rich flavours, acidity, fermentation. None of that is in American cooking. We have meatloaf and gravy. We have burgers. We have food from which the soul has been removed.
Standing in line outside of LocoL, I hear a passerby ask a customer behind me what kind of food they serve here. Soul food, she replies. Its a quick, off-hand comment, but its also a fine distillation of the complex thinking that goes into the menu here. In a way, it also captures what fast-food restaurants do best: simple ideas that require a lot of behind-the-scenes juggling.
Consider the $1 cup of coffee. Mercifully, there is no soda at LocoL. (Soda being the arch-nemesis of good health and an especially sinister force in communities such as Watts.) There are aguas frescas sweetened Mexican-style fruit juices and there is water and there is coffee. The coffee here is balanced and aromatic; the beans are not so lightly roasted as to be acidic and not so dark that they taste bitter or burnt. Its the kind of coffee you might expect to pay four times as much for at a twee shop in a trendier part of town. It was engineered by one of the big names of the third-wave coffee world, Tony Konecny , who founded the speciality-roast subscription service Tonx. In order to hit the $1 price point, he roasts surplus beans bought from contacts in the industry and roasts them during off-hours nights and weekends at a friendly facility.
Our food is $1, $2 and $4. Were making everything from scratch. Were baking the bread. Were not buying one frozen box, says Choi. In the restaurant business, we usually charge $14 to $24 for that type of food. Daniel and I are cooking that same $24 dish for $4.
We have the easiest, smoothest relationship of anyone Ive ever worked with, says Patterson of his working dynamic with Choi. Broadly speaking, he does the branding, and he gave me the kitchen. But theres plenty of crossover.
Patterson tells me a story about how Noodleman a dish of wok-fried chewy Korean noodles tossed with fresh lettuce, lime, chilli and ginger came to be. Of course they had the white guy come up with the Asian noodle recipe, he laughs. Choi hoped that Patterson could come up with something that evoked jajangmyeon a quintessential Korean noodle dish. After looking it up online, Patterson started riffing.
I had kind of a vague understanding and some sense of ingredients, Patterson explains. With that I just made what I thought tastes good. This is American food. It bubbles up through our own imagination and experience. Its not gonna be for everyone but its gonna be for a lot of people.
About three weeks before the opening of LocoL, Patterson resigned as chef at Coi, leaving his Michelin stars behind. I knew that I needed to find another direction, he explains. I knew that Id done everything I could possibly do there.
Ive known Patterson for five or six years, and he appears happier than Ive ever seen him. Choi is from Los Angeles. (His memoir, LA Son, paints a portrait of a man who identifies first as an Angeleno, then as a Korean-American and a chef.) Patterson is a relative outsider, but hes quick to point out that being from a community is not a prerequisite for connecting to it: Why is the default not caring? Why do you love your children? Why do you love your family? Why do I love the people here? Theyre us. Were all the same family.
Before embarking on LocoL with Choi, Patterson had been engaged in similar projects in San Francisco, connecting underserved kids and adults to experiences with honest cooking and real ingredients. Upon hearing Choi speak in Copenhagen, he recognised a kindred soul, as well as the potential to make a larger impact through collaboration.
I always wanted to feel like there was more good than bad in people. Im a very hopeful person, Patterson says. This is the first time in my life, this community, that I saw theres more good than bad in people.
Back in the queue outside LocoL, the feeling seems mutual. One of the community ambassadors, a man nicknamed Nardo, is directing foot traffic and explaining the new business a novel sight in this neighbourhood to curious locals. Someone from the line recognises him and asks if hes getting paid steady money for his job. Yeah, Im on the payroll, Nardo replies. Its a blessing.
The longevity and scalability of the blessing depends on what comes next. Will LocoL continue to thrive? Will it bring new visitors to Watts and wash away some of the stains of 1965? Chois and Pattersons business partner, Hanson Li, tells me that they plan to open between four and eight more LocoLs across California in LA, San Francisco and Oakland by the end of the year. People today are still eating McDonalds and Burger King, Li says. Were timely in terms of bringing new fast food to everyone. I ask him whether or not the business model is predicated upon opening hundreds of restaurants across the country, and he explains that if each branch of LocoL does as well as a normal fast-food restaurant, theyll be profitable. But will other communities embrace them in the same way?
The two chefs get defensive when questioned about the future. (Let me just look into my crystal ball, Patterson quips when I ask him about whats next.) Understandably so. When you feel like what youre doing is righteous and good, questions feel like opposition.
But as Im eating, I cant help but wonder. I realise Im awash in the force of this place, too. Im pulling for it to succeed. I think about the next steps and I want to know how they plan to approach them.
Then I remember my ice cream. Vanilla soft-serve topped with banana-brown butter, kumquat sauce and granola. Roy didnt want it to melt while we ate, so he told us to come back for it when we finished our burgers. And just like that, its clear what will make LocoL succeed.
LocoL, 1950 East 103rd St, Los Angeles, California; welocol.com
Read more: www.theguardian.com