New York Times restaurant critic Pete Wells has given us another surprise Bay Area review in his intermittent mission to survey the national food scene, and it's a review of Daniel Patterson and Roy Choi's ambitious fast-food venture Locol, which now has two locations in Oakland and the Watts neighborhood of LA, with a third on its way in SF's Tenderloin. It sounds like Wells wanted to like the place, and admires Patterson and Choi's mission to bring healthier, inexpensive food alternatives to inner-city neighborhoods that tend only to have unhealthy fast-food, but when it comes to the food itself, he's doesn't mince words. "The most nutritious burger on earth won’t help you if you don’t want to eat it," he writes.
Local critics have been far kinder to the restaurant, which opened in Oakland last May. The Weekly's Pete Kane was put off by the atmosphere and the packaging but impressed with the quality of the burgers and chicken nuggets, and the Chronicle's Michael Bauer positively raved about the fried chicken sandwich, saying "The crisp, golden fillet is topped with coleslaw, buttermilk mayonnaise and hot sauce... [and] it’s so good it could be served at Alta CA, or one of Patterson’s other casual restaurants, and still be a standout."
Not so, says Wells, who is hard-pressed to find anything on the menu to praise except an egg sandwich, the coffee, and the burger buns, created by Tartine's Chad Robertson.
Of the Fried Chicken Burg, he writes, "Like a McNugget, Locol’s chicken is an amalgam of chicken bits invisibly bound together. Inside a thin sheath of fried coating, this composite of ground meat is mysteriously bland and almost unimaginably dry... [and] the best thing to do with it is pretend it doesn’t exist."
Of the Cheeseburg, he says, "Melted cheese, iceberg lettuce, a crunchy pickle relish and a sauce in the Thousand Island dressing family all add moisture and flavor to a flat patty that needs all the help it can get," comparing the 70-percent beef patty to "school lunch and Boy Scout camp."
He's also served a bowl of their Chicken No-Noodle Soup, which is supposed to be a chicken-rice soup but his comes with virtually zero chicken in it.
Wells does praise the interior design, with a black-and-white photo of two guys on scraper bikes, and a soundtrack playing in the restaurant including Snoop Dogg's "Gin and Juice." "I don’t know of any other fast-food chain that has put street culture at the heart of its locations in this way," he writes. "The closest most of them come to design that reflects the surroundings is a wall of bulletproof glass."
But he makes an odd argument about the choice Patterson and Choi took with the menu, attempting to recreate fast-food staples in healthier versions. "Why offer less satisfying versions of what’s already there, when they could be selling great versions of something new?" he asks. That's all well and good, but if you're competing with fast food, don't you at least want to offer something familiar to the buyers of it? He's questioning the entire mission itself, essentially saying that fast food will never find a worthy alternative, because McDonald's is just too damn tasty.
The prices may be cheap, he says, but "The neighborhoods Locol is targeting have serious nutritional problems, from hunger to obesity, [and] the solution isn’t to charge people for stuff that tastes like hospital food."
Brace for some counterpoints, or a revamp of the menu, since the opinions about Locol have not been universally so negative though Yelpers in recent months haven't been that thrilled either, so maybe things have slipped?