The biggest food-world story of the week has turned out to be New York Times restaurant critic Pete Wells's unexpected and unexpectedly terrible review of Locol in Oakland, the ostensibly revolutionary new model for healthier, sustainable fast-food launched in 2016 by Bay Area chef Daniel Patterson, and LA chef Roy Choi. As celebrity chefs and prominent figures in the national food conversation over the last decade, Patterson and Choi's project earned the attention of Wells, who as of September has officially expanded his role to be the nation's restaurant critic, and not just New York's. He explained, following the publication of the review and a trip to visit multiple restaurants in Oakland, that he'd chosen to review it because "it was the most talked-about restaurant of the year," and because it seemed like too few people were actually talking about the quality of the food itself. But this choice, and the brutal honesty with which he attacked Locol's burger, chicken "nugs" and "no-chicken no-noodle" soup," has led to many on the internet decrying his elitism and dickishness after all, since when has a New York Times restaurant critic ever cared about small-scale fast-food businesses hoping to cater to the poor?
@pete_wells a completely dick-ish and unnecessary move.— LA my Way (@ElizKing) January 4, 2017
This isn't the first time that Wells has been accused of being elitist. The nation's foodinistas took great pleasure in Wells's brilliant and funny takedown of Guy Fieri's Times Square restaurant in 2012, which led to a subsequent cry of elitism among Fieri fans and haters of critics in general. But is this an analogous situation, or something totally different?
The argument goes like this: It's unfair to write a review of Locol as if it were just any other restaurant, without contextualizing Locol's take on fast food as compared to other inexpensive food in the area, and without taking into account that part of its mission is to deliver an approximation of fast food items (minus the fries) with less fat, salt, and calories, at a low price point for residents of impoverished neighborhoods. And while the first Locol location to open, in LA's Watts neighborhood, is in one such neighborhood, Locol's Oakland location is a bit different in that its surrounded by a bunch of other gentrified businesses next to the heart of the city's downtown in what was formerly Patterson's upscale restaurant Plum and this is something Wells addressed in his review. Taking it as just another lunch/dinner option in the neighborhood, he points to both similarly priced and slightly more expensive options right 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 of which he noted were busy during lunchtime a week before Christmas.
Wells's intention was to highlight a very prominent new restaurant project by two famous chefs, and to review its food on its own merits, much the way he did at Fieri's restaurant, or when he was somewhat critical of David Chang's new spot in New York's Chelsea neighborhood, Momofuku Nishi.
As Eater National points out, Wells has positioned himself as a kind of "people's critic" in the last several years, most dramatically with his takedown of Thomas Keller's Per Se last January, proving that he's not afraid to speak truth to power and dilute some of the celebrity-chef cachet that keeps customers paying big bucks for food that isn't always terrific, just because of the brand name. But that role comes with some peril, as Wells may be finding this week, when it grows beyond the insular world of New York's elite restaurants (and tourist traps) and into a national food scene that's in dire need of a reality check, as this new three-part series on Thrillist rightly suggests.
A recent and widely read profile of Wells by The New Yorker described Wells's ethos thusly: "a disastrous restaurant is newsworthy only if it has a pedigree or commercial might; the mom-and-pop catastrophe can be overlooked... it means that his pans focus disproportionately on restaurants that have corporate siblings."
Locol sort of falls in that category, in that Paterson and Choi both have mini-empires in their respective towns, but Locol stands apart as less of a commercial and more of an idealistic enterprise.
"I think he was expecting the food to be at least reminiscent of the food at Coi... which has $265 tasting menus, or at Roy Choi's Kogi trucks... which are screaming with salt and fat, etc.," said LA Times critic Jonathan Gold, speaking about Wells's review and the backlash on KPCC's Air Talk this week. Also, in Locol's defense, Gold suggests that the fact that their hamburger is a "little dry" is "probably the 117th most interesting thing about the place."
But Wells's argument still stands, and shouldn't be written off: "The most nutritious burger on earth won’t help you if you don’t want to eat it." In other words, how do you start a fast-food revolution and put McDonald's out of business in inner-city neighborhoods if your core product simply isn't that good though Wells doesn't actually make any direct comparisons to McDonald's, where he might also find the burgers a bit dry.
The San Francisco Chronicle's Michael Bauer was pretty gloves-off in his review of Locol last summer, and no one that I noticed attacked him for it and he did give the place two stars, which was more than Wells's zero. "Similarities to other fast-food franchises end at the counter service and the low prices," wrote Bauer. "One of the tenants [sic] of fast food is consistency. When you go to Jack-in-the-Box, the product tastes pretty much the same whether in Oakland or Orlando. At Locol, scaling and reproducing recipes are still issues." He praised the "Cheeseburg" on one visit, saying it had "an intensely meaty flavor when properly seared," but he said "it wasn’t as enticing on another visit, when the meat was timidly cooked."
It could be that Wells's visits to Locol exhibited some of that lack of consistency, three months after Bauer's last visit, and thus he had nothing but bad things to say about the fried chicken patty that Bauer claimed was good enough to be featured at Patterson's SF restaurant Alta CA.
Is it inherently wrong to critique such an ambitious, albeit idealistic, restaurant project on these details, when improving on them might lead to greater success for the enterprise down the line? Is it part of a Bay Area provincial sort of attitude to suggest that such projects should be outside the purview of criticism?
Choi himself responded somewhat graciously to Wells's review saying, "It tells me a lot more about the path. I don't know Pete but he is now inextricably linked to LocoL forever... 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."
As Eater concludes, "maybe... some restaurants aren’t meant to be assessed by some critics, even ones considered populist heroes."
But if no one ever takes the gloves off and tells it how they see it about the food except Yelpers, that is how does a place stand a chance of succeeding in the long run. In other words, should every critic just have let Locol expand across the state and the country without ever saying that the burger still needs a little work?