Los Angeles Times

COOKING UP A REVOLUTION

Star chefs Roy Choi and Daniel Patterson feed an appetite for alternativ­es in Watts and beyond

- JONATHAN GOLD RESTAURANT CRITIC

As you crawl down 103rd Street looking for a parking space, tooling past the Jordan Downs projects and the Florence Griffith Joyner Elementary School, it is not hard to spot Locol, the new quick-serve restaurant that is trying to transform Watts one spicy noodle bowl at a time. There’s the line, for one thing, spilling out of the door and trickling down Anzac Avenue, and the jaunty sign, and the people hollering to their friends through the screened windows of the lanai-like structure.

The chairs and tables on the patio look more like children’s building blocks than they do like proper furniture, which is hard to understand until you see the customers tug them into a hundred different configura-

tions. And you have never seen such hugging outside of a big family picnic. On a weekday afternoon in Watts, Locol is clearly the place to be.

Watts is at the center of what is sometimes called a food desert, which the USDA defines as “a census tract where a substantia­l number or share of residents has low access to a supermarke­t or large grocery store.” Locol isn’t in an area devoid of options — there are a couple of small markets, a Chinese takeout place, a Louisiana Fried Chicken and the excellent wings and grits breakfasts at the Watts Coffee House within a block or two — but there is nothing like a supermarke­t within Watts proper, and it is much easier to grab a pack of ramen at the convenienc­e store than it is to prepare or find a proper meal.

With Locol, chefs Roy Choi, whose Kogi truck and Korean hot-pot place Pot regularly make it onto The Times’ list of L.A.’s 101 best restaurant­s, and Daniel Patterson, whose San Francisco restaurant Coi holds two Michelin stars, aim to do nothing less than revolution­ize the system of fast food in America, to bring delicious, nourishing food into the areas that need it most.

At the 2013 MAD conference in Copenhagen, Choi electrifie­d an audience of chefs with a talk about hunger and civic responsibi­lity, which he illustrate­d with slides of underserve­d communitie­s in Los Angeles. Chefs were at a moment of unpreceden­ted celebrity, said Choi, and it was time to use some of that influence to change the culture; to make sure that everyone in those communitie­s had access to food as healthful and delicious as what they were serving their relatively affluent customers. Perhaps, he suggested, they could persuade investors interested in their restaurant­s to also help them open food venues in less-glamorous parts of town.

Patterson had been in that Copenhagen audience and introduced himself to Choi. At the 2014 MAD conference, he and Choi announced their idea for Locol: a chain of restaurant­s with a loose skate park feel, serving fresh, healthful cooking for about the price of a drive-thru meal — not a replacemen­t for fast food, but a better version of it.

A year and a half later, I find myself in line at Locol, on a street more famous for having burned in the 1965 riots than for anything rebuilt on it since. The day before, for the grand opening on Martin Luther King Day, the line had stretched all the way down a long block, Mayor Eric Garcetti showed up, and Choi had his DJ play King’s “I Have a Dream” speech before exfootball star Jim Brown cut the ribbon and declared the restaurant open. People waited patiently for nearly two hours for a shot at the chili bowls and the fried chicken sandwiches, the flat bean-filled tacos called “foldies” and the cupfuls of stewed collard greens.

The day after the opening, Patterson took a brief rest from cooking out on the restaurant’s patio and marveled at the 2,000 or so

people who had showed up the day before. “Today is just ordinarily crazy. And I think we’ve got the food to the point where it’s … OK. But that’s not necessaril­y the most important thing, at least not right now. The important thing is that we’re here.”

He and Choi are kind of an odd pairing — the modernist haute cuisine guy and the food truck czar; one driven by technique and the other by an almost supernatur­al ability to feed huge numbers of people. Patterson stepped down as chef at Coi last month, partly to help oversee the developmen­t of Locol. (A second Locol, in Oakland, is set to open soon, followed by a third in San Francisco’s Tenderloin district and a fourth in Los Angeles, also in Watts.) But the team seems to work.

This is a key moment for chefs attempting to change the morality of the food chain. Massimo Bottura, perhaps the most influentia­l chef in Italy at the moment, ran a soup kitchen for the homeless at the World’s Fair in Milan last summer. Brooks Headley quit his job as pastry chef at New York’s revered Del Posto to open the vegan fast-food stand Superiorit­y Burger. Dan Barber of Blue Hill in New York organizes events battling food waste, Jose Andres of Bazaar is involved with food initiative­s in Africa and Haiti, and Michael Cimarusti of Hollywood’s Providence launched a sustainabl­e dock-to-dish program in Southern California. But perhaps none of the projects is quite so ambitious as Locol, which is making a stand against some of the most entrenched pockets of urban hunger in the U.S.

Watts is now home to a different kind of meal. There is a new vocabulary for the food at Locol. Sandwiches are “burgs,” served on soft, griddled buns developed by Chad Robertson of the famous San Francisco bakery Tartine. Tacos are “foldies,” stuffed with carnitas, spicy barbecued turkey or cheese and nicely stewed beans. Side dishes are “yotchays,” an abstractio­n of the Korean word for vegetables, and include things like coleslaw, rice, hot flatbread and greens. The coffee comes from the roasters at Blue Bottle.

“You’ve got to try the Watts Special,” Choi tells a customer. “Flatbread and oniony beef gravy. You’ll love it, and it costs just two bucks.”

I finally make my way to the front of the line, order, and find myself a cube to sit on outside.

“This is overwhelmi­ng,” Choi says. “An out-of-body experience. There was a similar sensation with the first few months of Kogi, like the first time we showed up in a Rosemead parking lot to find 600 people waiting for us, but in some ways this is more complex and profound, almost to the point of tears. Strangers are hugging; kids are running around happy. ... In this neighborho­od, in Jordan Downs, there’s not just a lack of markets and places to go, there’s a persistent institutio­nal design, dreary furniture — it’s just bleak. Good design is important. And the energy of Watts, this specific neighborho­od, is on the block.”

I stab my fork into a bowl of salad and am stunned by the vivid tarragon flavor of the dressing.

“Our people, the people who work for us here, trust us, because we are constantly trying to fulfill the promises we make,” Choi says. “They trusted us on the food.... Everybody who works here is from the immediate neighborho­od. And we found our people the old-fashioned way — we posted help-wanted fliers on telephone poles. Around here, word of mouth is faster than the Internet.

“And the friends and family meals were great. We had deep OG Grape Street guys and wealthy potential investors from New York all eating the same food and talking about the same thing; same context, same vocabulary.”

Did the food have to adapt to the neighborho­od?

“We thought we had the menu set,” Choi says. “But when we talked to the kitchen guys about it, our people were looking at us like something was missing, like we had stopped before we had finished. Finally somebody said, ‘Where’s the turkey?’ ”

Turkey, wholesome, full-flavored and relatively low in calories, is a staple of the modern African American table.

“So we developed a new dish — a smoky, spicy Turkey Burg, like a spicy barbecued turkey sandwich,” Choi says. “And it looks as if it might be our bestseller.”

 ?? Photograph­s by
Christina House
For The Times ?? THE LINE
stretches down the sidewalk at Locol. The restaurant’s co-founder Roy Choi says the “the energy of Watts, this specific neighborho­od, is on the block.”
Photograph­s by Christina House For The Times THE LINE stretches down the sidewalk at Locol. The restaurant’s co-founder Roy Choi says the “the energy of Watts, this specific neighborho­od, is on the block.”
 ?? Photograph­s by Christina House For The Times ?? TABITHA O’NEAL takes a photo of her mother, Delores, with Locol co-founder Roy Choi in Watts.
Photograph­s by Christina House For The Times TABITHA O’NEAL takes a photo of her mother, Delores, with Locol co-founder Roy Choi in Watts.
 ??  ?? A LINE FORMS in Watts outside Locol, the first restaurant in a planned fast-food chain specializi­ng in healthful, inexpensiv­e fare.
A LINE FORMS in Watts outside Locol, the first restaurant in a planned fast-food chain specializi­ng in healthful, inexpensiv­e fare.
 ??  ?? ANTHONY ADAMS, left, helps young students order healthful fast food at Locol after school.
ANTHONY ADAMS, left, helps young students order healthful fast food at Locol after school.

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