It’s no coincidence that the first location of LocoL—the affordable, ethical fast-food chain envisioned by chefs Roy Choi and Daniel Patterson—is situated across the street from an elementary school in Watts. “I feel like Watts chose us, spiritually,” says Choi about the L.A. neighborhood that’s known for its resiliency in the face of poverty and segregation—the same neighborhood that exploded 50 years ago in the race riots. “A big part of fast-food in America is trapping the young kid. [At Locol,] everything is a playground, the whole place flows in a rhythm,” said Choi when he spoke about his vision for the concept in 2014.
Choi and Patterson first championed their alternative fast-food master plan at the MAD Symposium, calling for chefs to take responsibility for addressing the lack of wholesome options in “food deserts” and inner-city neighborhoods. On MLK Day, with hundreds lined up around the block for a first taste of LocoL “cheeseburgs” and soft-serve ice cream sundaes, their vision finally had its emotional real-world debut. There was a DJ spinning everything from Kendrick to Marvin Gaye, and children playing football and break-dancing out back in the patio. Mayor Eric Garcetti showed up to show his support, as did Jon Favreau and Jim Brown. This wasn’t just another fast-food restaurant opening—this was history, and everyone could feel it.
Dontre Glenn of Gardena, CA came to check out LocoL on opening day.
Choi knows that when kids get out of school, they’re hungry; they’re looking for something to do until their parents get home in the evening. That’s why the chef and entrepreneur is bumping Drake’s “Trophies” on the stereo; why he had custom Undefeated shirts designed for the staff; why he lined the walls with photographs taken by Evidence of Dilated Peoples; and why all the menu items—from burgers to bowls of chili—are made from fresh, not frozen ingredients and available from $1 to $6. The plan is solid: connect with the community and draw in the youth, then feed them real, honest, nourishing food. LocoL customers won’t find any soda at the restaurant, but they will find homemade aguas frescas and specialty coffee for a buck.
Dontre Glenn of nearby Gardena, CA, called up his friend while waiting in the three-block-long line on opening day. He told her, “I didn’t imagine it’d be like this. It’s drawing all sorts of ethnicities. This is a historical event, for something like this to be opening in Watts. You hear the music? They got music playing and everything.”
While Locol’s grand vision is far from complete, this first opening should put to rest some of the skepticism surrounding the project’s viability. Many argue that you can make food that is either high quality or affordable, but not both. But Choi thought otherwise: “You know, we’re taught in our lives to be cynical. People think positivity and idealism are weaknesses. But when you’re living within a world of positivity and idealism, it’s uplifting and powerful. It stretches every emotion.” It was easy to be taken in by his idealism once I arrived at LocoL on opening day, watching 50-year-old women dancing and children mouthing lyrics while eating fresh, unprocessed chicken nuggets.
Students from Griffith-Joyner Elementary School at the LocoL soft opening. (One kid was so excited, he forgot his book bag at school. True story.)
Seeing the store in action demonstrated that the concept is not just about feeding people, either—it’s also a chance to create opportunity for a community that’s long been without it. Almost all of the LocoL employees live in Watts, and many of them didn’t have any kitchen experience before they were hired.
“They’re hungry, man,” says Choi. “From day one the kitchen is spotless, the food is coming out hot and good, and the work stations are organized. Look how much energy they got, and they’ve been working since 6am. They’re bobbing their heads; they love it.”
That type of energy is infectious, and a far cry from the lifeless teen automatons associated with many corporate chains. “The community has taught us more than we’ve taught them, and together, we all believed in this. It’s been 100 since day one,” says Choi. “This has become more than we could have ever imagined. Daniel and I just created the outline, what the people did is they added the color.”
Ruthie Johnson, 53, dances to Marvin Gaye while waiting for her BBQ turkey burg.
Choi and Patterson have plans to roll out another LocoL location in San Francisco’s Tenderloin neighborhood, followed by a location in Oakland and a second in Watts. The opening of LocoL in Watts serves at the first triumphant introduction of what the concept looks like on the ground. And, from what we’ve seen, it looks as if Choi’s plan to revolutionize fast-food in America doesn’t seem so far fetched after all.
LocoL co-founder Roy Choi
But let’s be real: If the food isn’t delicious, then all is for naught. Impressively, the bargain grub at LocoL—from the $4 cheeseburger, to the beef-and-bean chili covered in cheese—is bold and flavorful. Here we take a look at what LocoL has to offer.
LocoL Cheeseburg ($4)
LocoL’s thick beef patty, cooked medium, is incredibly juicy. The burger is covered in melted Jack cheese, and served on a super-soft bun—made partially from rice flour (or koji)—that was created by Chad Robertson of Tartine Bakery. Scallion relish adds some pungency, and “awesome sauce” provides a kick thanks to garlic and gochujang.
Messy Beef Chili Bowl ($6)
This traditional beef-and-bean chili is fiery. It’s served atop white rice and topped with melted cheese and crackers to balance the heat. This is an enormous bowl of food for $6, and a great value.
Fried Chicken Burg ($4)
Like an oversized fried chicken nugget covered in hot sauce, this burg is addictive. Vinegary cole slaw adds bite and creamy buttermilk mayo mellows out the vinegar.
Machaca “Foldie” ($2)
The foldies—or folded tortillas stuffed with deliciousness and grilled until crispy—come in four varieties: carnitas, BBQ turkey, machaca, and bean-and-cheese. We opted for the version stuffed with heavily-spiced pork machaca, which might just be our favorite item on the menu.
Chicken Nugs ($2)
LocoL’s fried chicken nuggets come with creamy buttermilk spicy green-goddess sauce for dipping. These put McNuggets to shame.
Ice Cream Sundae ($3)
This fluffy soft-serve ice cream is mixed with roasted bananas, kumquat sauce, and granola. It’s like the parfait of your dreams, only with soft serve instead of yogurt.
Agua fresca and coffee ($1)
Specialty coffee—roasted with the involvement of Tony Konecny, founder of Tonx—is served hot or cold, and either black or sweet and creamy. The fruity aguas frescas are made in house every day, and there are absolutely no sodas on the LocoL menu.
Visit LocoL at 1950 East 103rd Street, Los Angeles, CA, 90002