LOS ANGELES — There’s no glass in the windows of Locol, the new restaurant from chefs Roy Choi and Daniel Patterson in Los Angeles’ Watts neighborhood. Instead, the large windows and doors of the roughly 3,000-square-foot space are simply screened in — which makes the place feel more like someone’s big front porch than the first joint restaurant from two high-profile chefs.
This is intentional, as is pretty much everything about Locol, a project that the pair hopes will revolutionize the food scene, not only in this neighborhood but across the country.
When those screen doors finally opened last week, it marked the official start of a project that began in 2014 at that year’s MAD Symposium in Copenhagen, when Patterson gave a talk at the food conference and began thinking about how to change the world. This is not an exaggeration. This is exactly what Patterson and Choi want to do with their project, which will soon open a second location in the Tenderloin neighborhood of San Francisco, a third in Oakland, and eventually a fourth in Los Angeles, also in Watts.
The mission of Locol is to bring affordable and healthful food to neighborhoods that have long been underserved and, by so doing, ultimately to transform what we consider to be “fast food” in this country.
Thus there are the $4 “burgs,” which are cheeseburgers or sandwiches of barbecued turkey and fried chicken in Robertson’s buns; bowls of noodles, chili, tofu and vegetable stew, and bulgur with dressing; “crunchies,” or chicken or vegetable nuggets or “nugs”; “foldies,” which are folded tortillas filled with carnitas, beans and cheese and other fillings; and $1 “yotchays,” Locol-speak for small paper bowls of spicy corn chips, rice, slaw, cooked greens, gravy and flatbread. There’s a breakfast menu coming soon, with yogurt and house-made granola, French toast “holes,” and various “eggs in the hole.” The drinks, including hot and iced coffee and aguas frescas, are all $1.
It’s an ambitious enterprise engineered by two chefs who have a vision, a wide audience and a lot of resources. Patterson is best known for his San Francisco restaurant Coi, which has two Michelin stars. Choi is, of course, the man behind the Kogi BBQ food truck empire, as well as a handful of well-regarded restaurants in Los Angeles. On their informal advisory board for Locol is Rene Redzepi, the chef who started Noma in Copenhagen, often called the best restaurant in the world, and the MAD Symposium itself. Chad Robertson of Tartine Bakery in San Francisco is also an advisor. How many quick-service hamburger buns, after all, are made using a recipe from a James Beard Award-winning baker?
“It’s a beautiful thing, you know?” said Choi as he took a break from delivering trays of burgers and yotchays to the crowd of mostly locals that had been filling the restaurant in the days before it opened as part of an extended “friends and family” run.
“You see how Watts is. You holler at each other. The energy is the corner, the block — so why shut that off?” Choi says about the screened doors and windows.
“The people here must have thought we were crazy,” said Patterson, joining Choi on the patio that opens up behind the restaurant, next to Locol’s commissary and second kitchen. “But they gave us an opportunity to do what we said we were going to do.
“This whole backyard was piles of dirt and barbed wire,” Patterson said, looking around. Now the patio is filled, as is the dining area inside, with wooden squares of various sizes, reclaimed wood that’s been painted in black and white and used as tables and chairs, rather like the furniture of a giant kids’ playground.
“When Daniel called me, he said: Roy, I have this crazy idea,” said Choi. “I just knew. We both knew. We’re in this whether we want to be or not.”
Pattterson’s crazy idea was not only to open a few affordable restaurants in Los Angeles and San Francisco but to expand them across the country. In the process, they’ll use those restaurants as incubators, beginning with the first Locol in Watts. Choi says they’ve already hired about 50 people at the Watts location, all of whom live in the area.
One of those local hires is Lydia Friend, who has spent all of her 56 years in Watts and is the restaurant’s store manager; Choi hired her sons at Locol as well. “When I was a little girl, this was three buildings — a print shop, an arcade and a joint where they bet on horses,” she says, looking around the restaurant now.
The property, which is across the street from Florence Griffith Joyner Elementary School and a few blocks south of the Jordan Downs housing projects, is now owned by Aqeela Sherrills, a community activist best known for brokering a peace agreement between rival gangs the Bloods and the Crips in the area in 1992.
“We were swinging for the fences,” said Choi of why they chose this neighborhood for the project. “If we’re really going to do this, let’s see if one of the most powerful neighborhoods in L.A. would embrace us. If they did, we’d know that what we’re doing is true. You can’t force that.”
“No one has come to their community,” added Patterson. “The presumption is that people don’t want it. It’s a lot of presumptions.”
Both chefs talk a lot about changing the system. And, yes, they use the term “revolution” a lot.
“The long-term vision is not one or three or five restaurants — we want to be the next fast food,” said Hanson Li, the San Francisco restaurant financier who is also a Locol partner. Li takes another spoonful of a soft-serve sundae that’s on the $3 dessert menu. “Does it feel like a restaurant?” he asks, as a wave of conversation and music comes in through the windows from the crowded sidewalk outside.
“It feels more like a cookout.”
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