Note: After running it by some friends whose judgment I trust, this story has been updated to delete a self-deprecating passage that struck some readers as being in poor taste. Errors of clarity fall on the writer, so I apologize: First for being glib and ambiguous, second for the unfortunate timing of people reading a food review that included a lame joke about me being a white goofball on a day when everyone is also reading about Alton Sterling's murder, and third for even the insinuation that something was awry with respect to my interaction with LocoL's staff. I had mixed feelings about the restaurant overall, but the staff rocks.
The world definitely needs more food palindromes. “Go hang a salami, I'm a lasagna hog” is a good one, if a bit contrived. LocoL, the palindromic fast-food restaurant with locations in Watts and Uptown Oakland, is stylistically advanced enough to throw more our way. (The menu isn't wordplay-averse, with a Green Goddess bowl called “Bulgar Language.”) But while the product of the partnership between SoCal food truck king Roy Choi and Bay Area chef-demigod Daniel Patterson (Coi, Haven, Plum Bar) can be read the same backwards and forwards, it still creates a lot of confusion.
Pronounced “local” — not “loco” with an L at the end — LocoL is a worthy effort, a fast-food joint with big aspirations. Food aside, I have to say I like the branding concept, which inverts the uniformity associated with corporate food. Noodleman, the Oakland location's mascot, looks like the Flying Spaghetti Monster or a two-legged ball of worms, and there's also another character that looks like a cross between Super Mario and Wimpy from Popeye. They're cool-looking, but when it comes time to conveying factual information, design flaws emerge. LocoL's picture-less menu doesn't always tell you if something comes with a sauce or even what whole categories (like “yotchays”) are. In short, it can be frustratingly hard to know what you're ordering.
Take the prices, which feel erratic. An immense bowl of chili with crumbled crackers over rice is only $7, but the veggie and chicken nugs ($4) are but four to a cup. Even though they're a piddling $3, the French toast holes somehow felt like a bigger rip-off, because there are only three little guys sitting in a lake of syrup that goes to waste. (When you're going head-to-head with the $2.99 hotcakes-and-sausage from McDonald's all-day breakfast menu, you've got to give people more than that.) It's not as if LocoL's breakfast is especially high-brow, either; I liked the egg, bean, and cheese brekkie sandwich and especially the one with carnitas ($5 each), but something about eggs with hard right angles doesn't scream “artisanal” to me.
Things that hew closer to fast-food expectations do better. There are four “burgs,” all $5: the LocoL Cheeseburg and Veggie Cheeseburg (each with jack cheese, scallion relish, and “awesome sauce”), a Fried Chicken (with slaw, buttermilk mayo, and hot sauce), and a BBQ Turkey (with buttermilk mayo). To get the bad part out of the way: LocoL is seriously over-thinking the buns. They're like some kind of sub-focaccia that wants to be a biscuit yet manages to be soggy and dry at the same time, as if the test kitchen bureau of quality control ate them in isolation and not on a sandwich. But the upside is that, in a world of $15 and $22 hamburgers, the meats are pretty great. Hell yes to all four, but a double hell yes to the veg. With all due respect to the earnest vegetarians who've probably tried a lot harder than I have to find one, I've never found a veggie burger that I genuinely enjoyed — until LocoL's. It was hearty, flavorful, and, best of all, the texture evaded the zone of crumbly sadness. (The falafel-like Veggie Nugs are superior to the Chicken Nugs, too.)
Of the four $3 quesadillas, or “foldies” — carnitas, BBQ turkey, bean-and-cheese, and machaca — three are good and greasy, although the carnitas could use lime and/or cilantro. The BBQ turkey, though, is a total stumper. Since LocoL's menu can play coy with key information, you won't divine that you're getting pulled-pork-style turkey in a very sweet sauce, with refried beans. It's fundamentally at war with itself, the biggest fault line on a menu that draws from Mexico, Southeast Asia, and the American South. Still, I could eat five of any of the other three.
Other things are solid, too. The Noodleman ($7) — spicy and tangy in its simple broth of ginger, chile, and lime — was one of my favorites. And unlike the otherwise delicious chili, it was hot enough on its own that I didn't yearn for Sriracha. Of the two aguas frescas, I would rate the orange-apricot as fine and strawberry-lime as excellent. And while it's hard to go awry with soft-serve ice cream, the dulces ($5) are tasty and generous. (I'm a Rocky Road fan, so naturally I liked that one best.)
I'm giving myself angina just articulating this quibble, but LocoL is too loud. I've written that before about other places — Belga, Parlour, Suppenküche — but when LocoL is crowded with patrons waiting for their orders, people raise their voices to talk to one another, and when they can't hear their number called, the staff breaks out the PA, so it can get really loud. Maybe it's a good thing, then, that there's very little space inside LocoL to eat your food. That's not to say it's cramped, because it isn't, but the only furniture consists of cubic wooden blocks that don't look like they want to be moved around. (The all black-and-white interior is stylish, like Janelle Monáe's brain, but the feng shui is weird.)
So you essentially have to eat outside in the plaza, where there are a few colorful tables and chairs, but not enough to accommodate LocoL, Ike's Place, the adjacent taqueria, and the Taiwanese bento box place. If there's no available space (quite probable during lunch) or if there's inclement weather (improbable now, but not forever) you'd better bring a bag, because LocoL doesn't seem set up for to-go orders at all. (Good luck carrying a lidless cup of French toast holes out the door.) Further, LocoL's packaging is ugly, and it's hard to decipher which bin to toss things into. This feels like nitpicking, even to me, but after a while the nits start to add up — and aren't world-famous restaurateurs the brains of this outfit? Mostly, though, it's the buns that brought me down.
I'm also curious about the automated ordering kiosk. On the one hand, it's just a sign of the times, since S.F. is getting a robot-burger restaurant called Momentum Machines and even the create-your-taste McDonald's in the Financial District is on board with that trend. But if much of the point of LocoL is to invest in an underprivileged teenage workforce, why automate them out of the equation, even a little bit? (It might be a moot point, though, because over three visits, I never saw a soul using them.) And on the subject of teens, all the ones I interacted with were knowledgeable, professional, and polite. The problem is that right now, it feels like they're running the whole show.