Eating L.A. Before It Eats Itself: An obituary for LocoL, chef Roy Choi’s honest attempt at fast food

Shideh Ghandeharizadeh | Daily Trojan

Chef Roy Choi’s attempt at revolution, once as incendiary and bright as a firework among Los Angeles restaurants, has fizzled into darkness.

Both the Watts and San Jose locations of his healthy fast-food concept LocoL have shuttered after about two years of operation, having been  beaten down by other restaurateurs, the Watts community and critical media (famously receiving a zero-star review from The New York Times). But LocoL burst with such fiery hopefulness that even in its last few months, standing on a broken leg and gushing, the place still seemed to smile.

I visited LocoL twice in May, and was fortunate enough to have met Choi during one of them. I wrote something about him then, which I believe rings even truer now.

As my friend and I pushed through the restaurant’s door, two voices struck me with the same eagerness as an Apple retail employee: “Hello, welcome to LocoL!”

Roy Choi, who was previously leaning against the pick-up counter and probably chatting with the employee behind the register, now stood with open arms — a welcoming gesture in an empty restaurant. I smiled, unsure if he really was Roy Choi or just some hired help greeting the customers. The Stussy shirt and ink-ornamented arms, however, were undeniable indentifiers of the celebrity chef.

As we placed our orders, Choi backed away from us into the corner of the room. His eyes scanned the multiple TV monitors, the walls and eventually us. His phone slid between his hands before his back pocket, a habit of boredom or a nervous tick. I got the strawberry lemonade agua fresca, the greens and a bean and cheese foldie, unable to focus on what I was doing and moreso fascinated by Choi’s every movement.

“Hey, I don’t mean to bother you, but can I get a picture?” I asked, in such deep dissociation that I felt like I was watching myself from the opposite end of the restaurant. He stared at me for a moment, and I began to panic: What if this actually wasn’t celebrity chef Roy Choi and instead some random customer that I have chosen to harass?

“Of course!” We both forced a smile as I took the photo.

“How often do you stop by here?” I asked. “I’m sure you’re very busy.”

“I come here whenever I have the time,” he laughed a bit. “Today, I have some time.”

“What are you doing the rest of today?” Now I’m going around asking his personal information. Great job, Chrissy. “You don’t need to answer that if it’s too personal.”

“No, no, it’s fine. I’m gonna stay here for another 30 minutes or so, then go to the beach before cooking dinner at my restaurant A-Frame.”

“Oh, A-Frame! Bomb pancakes.” I had never even been to A-Frame. I was lying! I was straight up lying. (Note: I have now actually been to A-Frame. The pancakes are indeed bomb.)

He smiled at this. “Really? Thank you!”

“So the beach?”

“Yeah, I go there to clear my head. I usually go after going here.”

“Yeah, I would be stressed out too if I were you.”

“Well, someone has to do it,” he responded with the same smile.

Though Choi had a warm demeanor, his weariness was almost breathable.

While I sat, Choi wandered through the kitchen and eating area, almost lacking purpose; just staring, perhaps full of thought. He sat in the back of the restaurant for almost the entirety of my time there, on his phone or looking around. At one point, I mentioned that the agua fresca was good, and he appeared immediately at my side to get me a refill.

I say very little besides praise for LocoL within earshot of Choi, despite the fact that my meal was dripping fifty shades of grease and was the very opposite of healthy. But, since the restaurant is now occupied by six people (three employees, Choi, my friend and myself), everything I said was within earshot of Choi.

But I felt like he knew what I was really thinking. As I chatted about the food and each element that was unique or flavorful, Choi grieved as he took in the state of his dream social project. He stared out the window at Watts like it was a forlorn lover. And in a way, it was.

It was hard to ignore the population difference outside of LocoL and on the streets. People buzzed around on sidewalks, walking to the school or the store, leaning in the shade, smoking cigarettes and enjoying their routines. The people of Watts are energetic yet inviting. And while Watts is a food desert, LocoL is a culture desert. I doubt that the person who scrawled “F-ck LocoL” on the wall of the women’s restroom was a devout Choi follower from WeHo.

When our class got off the Watts station before heading to LocoL just a few days later, a handful of people working at a corner store shouted, “Welcome to Watts!” at us as we passed by. It was loud, yes, and perhaps overly aggressive, but earnest.

It reminded me immediately of my conversation with Choi. As we parted ways to go sit, he also told us, “Welcome to Watts.” It was a line, repeated over and over again at white customers who betrayed the very core idea of what LocoL was, but were the likely lifeblood keeping the project afloat. Instead of nourishing Watts, a neighborhood without a grocery store, LocoL fed visitors expensive, greasy meals masqueraded as a vehicle for social change.

What part of Choi feels like he can welcome us to Watts? At the end of the day, he’s just as uninvited there as we are. Rest in peace, LocoL (2015 –— 2018).

Christina Tiber is a junior majoring in psychology. Her column, “Eating L.A. Before It Eats Itself,” runs every other Thursday.