NYTimes critic Pete Wells has officially given his first zero star review to a restaurant outside of New York. The recipient: Locol, the burgeoning do-gooder fast food chain from chefs Daniel Patterson (Coi) and Roy Choi (Kogi), which opened its doors in LA’s Watts neighborhood, followed by a location in Uptown Oakland.
The Oakland location is at the center of the critic’s laser focus, chosen because unlike the food desert of Watts, there are plenty of viable dining options in the immediate vicinity. In his review, Wells immediately zeroed in on the many restaurants nearby, “a taqueria, a sandwich shop, a home-style Taiwanese place, a West African and Caribbean grill, a Mexican restaurant, a beer-conscious brasserie and a branch of Umami Burger,“ all within sight of Locol. And though the partners plan to take Locol to more desolate dining areas of East and West Oakland in the near future, Wells rasies the question of “If you had other options, would you still eat at Locol?”
According to the rest of his review, it appears that the answer is no. Wells isn’t impressed by a spiceless chili, which he described as “a slightly spicier version of the meat sauce my corner pizzeria pours over penne. Supermarkets sell canned chilis that are seasoned more persuasively.” The fried chicken was also a fail for Wells, an “amalgam of chicken bits invisibly bound together,” that was both “mysteriously bland and almost unimaginably dry.” Available as a sandwich or in “nug” form, Wells advises that the “best thing to do with it is pretend it doesn’t exist.” Similarly the beef patty gave Wells the unpleasant sense memory of dining in a school cafeteria.
Wells did enjoy the egg sandwich, particularly the roll that was created with the help of Tartine’s Chad Robertson, and a splash of “a fine hot sauce.” The coffee and agua frescas also got high marks; the ice cream sundae remains unevaluated, the result of a broken soft serve machine. [Editor’s note: It’s a delicious sundae, and probably one of the best things on the menu.]
Separately from the food, Wells designates the vibe as the most successful thing about the restaurant. A casual atmosphere with street culture at its heart, Wells correctly identifies at least part of Locol’s raison d’etre, which is to create an upbeat community gathering place, and employment opportunity. “If Locol can create environments like this across the country, it would be a major achievement.” In the meantime, the Oakland location only garnered a “satisfactory,” the highest designation assigned to a restaurant that is awarded no stars, above “fair” or “poor.”
SF Chronicle critic Michael Bauer reviewed the restaurant, then four months old, in September and gave it two stars, saying “It’s clear from my visits that the promising restaurant is still finding its way. On just about every visit, something went astray.” Like Wells, he also experienced the devastation of a broken soft serve machine, among other mishaps. Bauer seemed almost to give points for a good effort, saying “It took the McDonald brothers more than eight years to perfect their formula, and Locol is only four months into its grand experiment to reshape fast food.”
Wells’ biggest takeaway: “Why offer less satisfying versions of what’s already there, when they could be selling great versions of something new?” Though Patterson and Choi are working hard to create nutritious and delicious food, Wells calls them out for “thinking about the social dimensions of fast food so much that they now see their target audience as problems to be solved, not customers to be pleased.”
For ultimately, “The most nutritious burger on earth won’t help you if you don’t want to eat it.”
Eater has reached out for comment; neither Patterson nor Choi (who is notorious for his fiery social media presence) has commented online.
- Fast Food for Needy Neighborhoods, at Locol in California [NY Times]
- Oakland’s Locol Has a Mission as It Looks to Hit Its Stride [SF Chronicle]
- LocoL Opens in Oakland With Cheeseburgs and Chicken Nugs for All [ESF]
- All Coverage of Locol [ESF]