In what looks like a low blow, the New York Times sent its restaurant critic, Pete Wells, to Oakland, Calif. this week where he dropped a harsh review on Locol, the feel-good fast food chain from West Coast-based chefs Roy Choi (Kogi, Los Angeles) and Daniel Patterson (Coi, San Francisco). The restaurant — which is the second location of what the chefs hope will become a nationwide chain serving areas without access to healthful, convenient food — opened last May, four months after the first outlet debuted in Los Angeles.
Wells gives it zero stars, mostly because its food falls short of expectations: “The chili is the bean-and-ground-beef kind, which for some Texans is a deal breaker. I was more bothered by how hard it was to detect any spices other than a shadow of hot sauce. This was less like chili than like a slightly spicier version of the meat sauce my corner pizzeria pours over penne. Supermarkets sell canned chilis that are seasoned more persuasively.”
But Wells also takes issue with the service. A chicken noodle soup came with neither chicken nor noodles. (For what it’s worth, the restaurant’s menu calls the soup “Chicken NOodle Soup,” a play on words Wells seems to have missed.) On the day of his meal, Wells says, the restaurant was out of the dessert menu’s soft-serve ice cream. The critic enjoys the coffee (“it’s excellent”), the egg sandwich, and the roll sandwiches are served on, developed by noted SF baker Chad Robertson of Tartine fame. But Wells is less interested in the burger and, particularly, the chicken: “Like a McNugget, Locol’s chicken is an amalgam of chicken bits invisibly bound together,” he writes. “Inside a thin sheath of fried coating, this composite of ground meat is mysteriously bland and almost unimaginably dry. It can be had as a single patty between buns with coleslaw, as the Fried Chicken Burg, or in a paper cup, with barbecue sauce, as bite-size Chicken Nugs. But the best thing to do with it is pretend it doesn’t exist.”
Wells could have dined anywhere in Oakland, or San Francisco, or on the West Coast, or across the country, and it’s not clear why he chose to shine such a damning light on Choi and Patterson's fledgling project, which is as much of a social mission as it is a restaurant. On the other hand, his harsh observations aren’t empty of purpose. Wells points out that the Oakland Locol is located on a street where there are plenty of other food options, many of which are more delicious. He writes: “I understand why [Choi and Paterson] 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? ... Mr. Patterson and Mr. Choi seem to have thought 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. The most nutritious burger on earth won’t help you if you don’t want to eat it.”
Wells, the Times’ critic since 2011, has been reviewing restaurants outside of New York City since September (when he gave LA’s Cassia three stars). This is his third review outside of his home base; the second was D.C.’s Bad Saint, which received three stars.