Chicken "Burg" and Agua Fresca from LocoL. Photo: Audrey Ma
A chicken “burg” and agua fresca at LocoL. Photo: Audrey Ma
A chicken “burg” and agua fresca at LocoL. Photo: Audrey Ma

In all the years Chef Daniel Patterson has worked in fine dining, no-one ever asked him the nutritional value of the food he was serving. So he is a bit befuddled by the emphasis on that question now that he has teamed up with the Los Angeles-based chef Roy Choi, of Kogi BBQ truck fame, to open a chain of fast food restaurants called LocoL.

“Healthy is a loaded word,” he said. “We approach the food in the way I’ve always approached cooking: we start with whole ingredients and cook them in a way that makes them delicious. What you don’t have is preservatives, artificial coloring and a lot of the stuff that tends to be in processed food.”

The Bay Area’s first LocoL opened last month at 2214 Broadway in the home of what was most recently one half of Patterson’s Plum Bar + Restaurant in Uptown Oakland, four months after the opening of the first franchise in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles. The restaurant has been radically transformed in the process, with black and white décor and a menu full of dishes for $5 or less. (Bowls, the most expensive items on the menu, go for $7.)

Daniel Patterson at LocoL. Photo: Audrey Ma
Daniel Patterson in the kitchen at LocoL in Oakland. Photo: Audrey Ma

Patterson earned two Michelin stars during his tenure at his North Beach restaurant Coi, and he also oversees the menus of Alta CA, Aster, and Alfred’s Steak House in San Francisco, as well as Plum Bar and Haven in Oakland. But he’s now putting much of his energy toward this passion project with Choi to bring healthy options to food deserts, places where often the only food that can be bought is heavily processed and often found only in corner stores.

It was in 2014 at the MAD Symposium in Copenhagen that Patterson came up with the idea and asked Choi to be his collaborator.

While the menu features burgers (“burgs”), tacos (“foldies”), and chicken and vegetable nuggets (“crunchies”), two major items ubiquitous at fast-food restaurants are not on the menu: French fries and soda. The “yotchays” (side dishes) include messy greens and spicy corn chips instead. The “Brekkie” menu offers its own rendition of egg sandwiches.

Chicken Nug "Crunchies" and Agua Fresca at LocoL. Photo: Audrey Ma
Chicken nug “crunchies” and agua fresca at LocoL Oakland. Photo: Audrey Ma
Chicken nug “crunchies” and agua fresca at LocoL Oakland. Photo: Audrey Ma

And, unlike traditional fast food, which is overly processed and filled with hard-to-pronounce ingredients, there is nothing of the sort at LocoL.

Patterson said he’s sourcing ingredients from the same purveyors he uses for his other restaurants, but he and Choi will have to look for others that can scale up with them as they grow. Plans are in the works to open more Bay Area locations by the end of the year: East Oakland, on the West Oakland/Emeryville border, and in the Tenderloin.

As for what makes Locol’s “burgs” different, up to 30% of the beef and chicken patties are made up of grains and tofu. Seaweed and fish sauce are used to up the umami factor. The “awesome sauce” served on top is made with tomatoes, vinegar and the fermented Korean chile condiment gochujang. The buns, made from a recipe developed by Tartine Bakery’s Chad Robertson, contain 24-hour fermented koji rice.

We found the dishes we tried tasty and filling, especially the messy greens, which had just the right amount of spicy kick. However, we did think that some diners may be put off by the fact that it is easy to see that the burgers are made up of a number of ingredients, not just meat.

Roy Choi speaking during a team meeting at LocoL. Photo: Audrey Ma
Roy Choi speaking during a team meeting at LocoL Oakland. Photo: Audrey Ma

Patterson is also working on getting electronic benefit transfer (EBT) accepted at LocoL restaurants. It’s still not accepted at the Watts location, but not for lack of trying. EBT is an electronic system that allows state welfare departments to issue benefits via a magnetically encoded payment card.

“We’re still learning the system, which is arcane and requires snail mail to different agencies,” said Patterson. “It seems they want to us to apply for each store, and we’re trying to find a way to get around that. It’s a complicated government program that we want available at all our locations so we’re still working on that.”

When asked whether Patterson was hoping that other fine dining chefs would follow his lead in working to improve access to healthy food, he said he could only speak for himself. He did note that a former sous chef at Coi is now working with him at LocoL.

“I’m only responsible for my own actions and I don’t want to tell people what to do,” he said. “But there’s never [before] been an opportunity to feed people at this price point, at this kind of scale, with real food.”

Patterson said that he and Choi are most interested in providing culinary jobs and training to those who otherwise may not be able to find a way into the industry.

The line outside of LocoL on opening day. Photo: Audrey Ma
The line outside of LocoL Oakland on opening day. Photo: Audrey Ma

Before our interview, Patterson had just finished an event in Beverly Hills along with the staff from the Watts location of LocoL, and he said they saw the same products in the kitchen that they are used to using. The only difference was that the event’s dishes had more garnishes and a different presentation than at LocoL.

“What we’re doing is really close to what you’ll find in a fine-dining restaurant, but [we’re] geared toward being able to reproduce it with speed and at scale,” he said. “A lot of the cost around fine dining is about labor, as it takes a lot of people to do those cute little garnishes, which can change the dish but doesn’t make it wildly different. Our cooks in Watts had never worked in a restaurant before, but, four months later, they got to this Beverly Hills dinner and saw there’s the same equipment they’re used to, and it was a really great moment where they could see a place where they fit into our industry. A really big part of our focus is to create opportunities [in] our industry for people who have talent and drive to make real contributions.”

Keith Corbin is one such person, a lifelong Watts resident, who oversaw the opening of the Watts location, and is now in the Bay Area to help oversee the expansion. He had only great things to say about how his staff, after only 48 hours of training, handled the massive crowds that caused the Oakland restaurant to run out of food in its first few days. And, in the following week, he was proud that the average wait time after payment was just two minutes.

“The preparation for this food takes days,” Corbin said. “Behind the scenes, there’s a lot that we do. But when you get it, you just see, the quality of the food is not something you’re going to get anywhere else for this price.”

LocoL is at 2214 Broadway (at Grand Avenue), Oakland 94612. Open every day 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Connect with LocoL on Facebook, Instagram, YouTube and Twitter, and learn more about the restaurants in this video.

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Alix Wall is an Oakland-based freelance writer. She is contributing editor of J., The Jewish News of Northern California, for which she has a food column and writes other features. In addition to Berkeleyside’s...