Fast Food Is Going Loco'l

Plus, a few great corn dishes to try before the season ends.



The most exciting initiative to come out of this year's MAD Symposium — an annual gathering of some of the world's most prominent chefs and food cognoscenti — will set down roots in the Bay Area. Roy Choi (whose Los Angeles-based Kogi food trucks spawned an entire generation of fusion-taco entrepreneurs) and Daniel Patterson (whose restaurant empire includes Oakland's Haven, Ume, and Plum Bar) are joining forces to open Loco'l, a fast-food chain that will target so-called "food deserts" — low-income neighborhoods with few healthy dining options — in California and beyond.

The chefs' ambition? To serve healthy, delicious fast food — everything from burgers and tacos to rice bowls — for just $2 to $6 per item. The nascent chain, whose name is a play on "loco" (i.e., crazy) and "local," will open its first location in San Francisco's Tenderloin district next year, The Chronicle reported.

When reached by phone, Choi said that a branch of Loco'l in Oakland, whose food deserts are well documented, is also in the works. Indeed, Choi said he'd originally hoped to launch the project in Oakland. He and Patterson decided that San Francisco might be stronger from an initial funding and resource-culling standpoint, but Choi expects the first Oakland location to open shortly after, or perhaps even at the same time as the Tenderloin spot.

While the two chefs have yet to decide which Oakland neighborhood would be the best fit, Choi said the general idea is to pick areas in which a lot of people live, but where a McDonald's or Taco Bell might be the only food option. "And it's not just inner city communities. It's also our inner suburbs," Choi added. "Pleasanton has probably some of the worst food on earth."

Ultimately, Loco'l will succeed or fail based on the efforts of the two restaurateurs who are spearheading the project: Patterson — a cerebral, innovative chef — and Choi, who describes himself as the "wild card." In truth, what Choi provides is a certain street cred to the venture. After all, the recipes in his cookbook memoir, L.A. Son, features are mostly for things like bacon-wrapped hot dogs and cheesy instant ramen, rather than haute cuisine. Perhaps most importantly, Choi likes fast food. He said he understands, deeply, why the food at McDonald's is so addictive.

Choi explained that the last thing he wants is to create a cultural rift — a sense that a bunch of Michelin-starred chefs are descending down from on high to tell poor people what to eat and how to spend their money: "I don't want anyone to give a shit one way or another when they walk into [Loco'l]. I want them to look at it like a KFC or a Mickey D's."

His hope is that once customers eat the food at Loco'l, they'll taste — and feel — the difference. According to Choi, the only problem with fast food is that the corporations who run those chains have lost their way when it comes to their standards for how livestock is raised and produce is grown.

Of course, when you read early details about Loco'l's proposed menu, which will feature, among other gourmet touches, seasonal produce and a 24-hour fermented koji burger bun devised by Tartine Bakery's Chad Robertson, the million-dollar question that comes to mind is: How can it be financially sustainable to sell this food at prices that rival those of McDonald's?

Part of it will involve pulling favors, pure and simple. Patterson and Choi both have solid reputations — and extensive connections — among farmers and purveyors, and in the food community at large — particularly among the kinds of talented, forward-thinking chefs who attend MAD each year. As Choi put it, "You motherfuckers are either with us or not."

The rest will be a matter of science and innovation. Already, Patterson has developed a burger patty that is only 60- to 70-percent beef. The remainder is made up of grain and tofu (for a healthier, more cost-efficient product) — yet, according to Choi, the flavor is indistinguishable from an all-beef patty.

With chefs as sharp as Patterson, Robertson, and himself — and whoever else they can recruit — putting in time at the lab, Choi said, "[We] at least have a pretty good shot of figuring this out."

Corn on My Mind

When fresh corn is in season, as it is now, corn on the cob smeared with melted butter is such a lovely, classic treat, you need to do something really special to improve on it. Here are a few dishes that meet the mark, available in the East Bay for a limited time.

1) Hawker Fare (2300 Webster St., Oakland) has been serving an occasional special of grilled corn with green-curry butter ($5 for a single large cob): sweet yellow corn that's grilled, street-cart style, until many of the kernels are blackened and well-caramelized. The best part is the green-curry butter, which looks like a thick, fibrous paste but, appropriately enough, spreads "like butter." You get the richness of churned dairy and the herbaceous freshness of the curry (made with galangal, kaffir lime leaves, shrimp paste, and other herbs and spices), and a hint of mouth-tingling heat. A sprinkle of sea salt mixed with dried chili flakes puts this over the top.

2) Meanwhile, Comal (2020 Shattuck Ave., Berkeley) should continue to serve chef Matt Gandin's take on Mexican elote ($8) — street-style corn on the cob — through mid-October. You can find a version of this popular street snack at any number of Mexican restaurants, but Comal's version shines because of its stellar ingredients: tangy, high-quality queso fresco; a smear of smoky, luxurious chipotle aioli; and, of course, super-sweet Brentwood corn.

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