Pete Wells, food critic for the New York Times, has always pushed the envelope of what defines a restaurant worthy of criticism. He’s taken down Per Se and Guy Fieri with the same sharp words. This week, Wells turned his eye west to the second location of chefs Roy Choi and Daniel Patterson’s Locol.
In early 2016, the chefs sought out an underserved community for the first location of their healthy fast casual and found it in the South Los Angeles neighborhood of Watts. The 2-square-mile area is home to more than 41,000 people, making it one of the most densely populated neighborhoods in LA and the United States.
The second location, however, is in Oakland. As Wells writes:
“Watts had reason to celebrate. New restaurants don’t turn up every day, let alone ones whose owners promise to make the neighborhood a better place.
“Competition is stiffer along Broadway in the Uptown neighborhood of Oakland, where the second Locol arrived in May. While there are plenty of empty storefronts on the nearby blocks, there are also fresh contenders like Donut Savant, which sells pour-over coffee and scaled-down Cronut knockoffs.”
Wells focuses on the food at Locol and walks away finding it lacking. A chicken no-noodle soup (it swaps rice for the noodles) but also without chicken, a lackluster chili, and a dry fried chicken sandwich.
“If Locol can create environments like this across the country, it would be a major achievement.
“But first Mr. Patterson and Mr. Choi have to figure out the menu. I understand why they want to take on fast food, but in the neighborhoods they hope to reach it’s one of the few kinds of food available. Why offer less satisfying versions of what’s already there, when they could be selling great versions of something new?”
Locol walks off with a zero-star satisfactory rating.
Choi took to Instagram to address the review.
Zero stars. I know many of you want me to respond or snap back at him but the situation to me is much more than that. I welcome Pete's review. It tells me a lot more about the path. I don't know Pete but he is now inextricably linked to LocoL forever. So I'll share with you what I wrote to a friend and our team. We got that PMA: "The truth is that LocoL has hit a nerve. Doesn't mean all people love it, some hate it. But no one is indifferent by it. That's the spirit of LocoL. It has nothing to do with my ego. It's something bigger than all of us. Pete Wells is a component to its DNA. His criticisms are a reflection of us and the nerve that LocoL touches. And our imperfections. Also the nerve of challenging the binary structure of privileged thought patterns and how life is not just about what's a success or failure, but some things are real struggles and growth journeys. We all know the food is not as bad as he states. Is it perfect? NO. But it's not as bad as he writes. And all minorities aren't criminals either. And all hoods aren't filled with dangerous people either. But the pen has created a lot of destruction over the course of history and continues to.. He didn't need to go there but he did. That's why he's a part of LocoL. The power of this change and this nerve that it hits. It compelled him to write something he knows would hurt a community that is already born from a lot of pain and struggle.. Crazy, right? But I see it as a piece to this whole puzzle." #LocoL #Watts #Oakland
Not surprisingly, comments on Choi’s post have by and large supported the chef:
“Stay strong Locol. The vision was to bless and help a community and it is doing that with benefits that far out weigh $profits. It takes time for visions to manifest. It takes time for seeds to break ground, take root, and produce fruit. Don't look back. Pete's words use as flint and kindling. The nerve is on fire now burn and consume the doubt. Yall got my support!” @hotvillechicken
“@ridingshotgunla opening a something like Locol in Culver City takes no vision. Opening another spot with your name on it in any up and coming or already gentrified neighborhood would have been a money grab for anybody with half your reputation. It takes real courage to actually enact change. You opened a take out counter in watts to bring fresh food where it isn't. You opened a restaurant in watts and gave an overlooked neighborhood and it's people something to be proud of... people aren't lining up to do that (yet). You opened a place in a neighborhood that Los Angeles forgot (only to make the ten best new restaurant list). It's easy for people with no vision or passion to criticize. Especially east coast food critics who's job it is to be unimpressed. Keep doing what you do... We got you” @coastlineandy
Locol obviously isn’t the only community-focused restaurant out there, but it is the first to get reviewed by the Times. In the end, it’s important that the conversation between the newspaper of record and the chefs on the ground continues.
Our culture overvalues cynicism, undervalues skepticism, and is vague about the difference.
— Pete Wells (@pete_wells) January 4, 2017