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How Watts Became A Foodie Destination, Despite The Neighborhood’s Gang Culture

Growing up in the small city of Baldwin Park, CA, we didn’t have the mainstream gangs one would have seen portrayed in media, but you could still have your day ruined by wearing the wrong colors, or simply being a young Mexican boy walking home from school.

Every city like this has its own gang etiquette. You know where you shouldn’t walk through, you know what you shouldn’t wear, and you know what spots are generally safer to eat in than others.

In 2001, after middle school basketball practice, my teammates decided to walk down to a local burger shop for a bite. My broke ass sheepishly decided to just go home, so I told them I was going to work on some homework — much to my own benefit.

I was lucky that day, as one of my buddies frantically called me that night, letting me know that a drive-by had just occurred while they were sitting and just trying to enjoy their post-basketball meal. It was of no fault of their own, just a product of being at the wrong place at the wrong time, with a gang member haphazardly sitting on the other side of the restaurant, essentially with a tattooed target on the back of his head. Thankfully no one was hurt.

While gangs aren’t just running around shooting up the whole city 24/7, growing up in these types of neighborhoods creates a certain sense of hyper-awareness.

Which brings us to a particular neighborhood within Los Angeles, with its own unique set of gang etiquette.

There was a time when the average Los Angeles consumer wouldn’t even give second thought to entering the city of Watts for its food. Back then, the prevalent gangs around there alone would be a big enough deterrent, as the idea of walking down Crip or Blood territory was a big no-no.

Over the last decade or so, Watts eateries such as All Flavor No Grease, Hawkin’s House of Burgers, and more recently Locol, have encouraged foodies from all walks of life to enjoy their eats, and nary a problem has stemmed from it.

No, the gangs haven’t disappeared. Hawkin’s Burgers still sits in what is recognized as Blood territory, and when All Flavor No Grease was famously set up on 108th street, many might not have known they were biting through gooey quesadillas in an active Crip territory.

Despite being on gang grounds, there seems to be a level of respect for these home-grown Watts establishments, a respect that has managed to keep trouble away from the restaurants and its customers.

On the Katchup podcast, Watts legend Keith Garrett, owner of All Flavor No Grease, spoke candidly about his relationship with the neighborhood’s gang culture. Among the surprising revelations, Garrett spoke about actually bringing the Bloods and Crips together for a cease fire agreement, in support of his sidewalk food popup.

“There was a meeting held at Markham Middle School, with both rival gangs,” Garrett said. “It was like, ‘If Keith said it was cool, it gotta be cool. He come in peace, so we know he wouldn’t put our lives in danger to come get a plate.'”

(Audio) Keith Garrett opens up about selling food in gang territories.

Garrett said that from that point, both gangs saw his food stand as neutral ground. There’d be rival members walking by each other, and while the tension between them still existed, they respected Garrett enough to eat there, support, and not cause any malice that would affect his business.

“When I came on the scene, I came on the scene with my arms open, and said I love everybody,” Garrett continued. “There’s no color line. No Blood, no Crip, wherever you’re from, you could come over and come get food.”

All Flavor No Grease started in a front yard, in a less than savory neighborhood, yet there were people from all over Los Angeles coming to try this new style of quesadilla.

Suddenly, foodies, news stations, Yelpers, and those hearing the hype by word of mouth, could walk into a once feared neighborhood and eat together.


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That same sense of community and respect exists with Hawkins House of Burgers, often recognized as one of the best burgers in Los Angeles.

Owner Cynthia Hawkins explained to NPR, that theirs was the only building on the street left untouched during the Watts Riots in 1965. It was no accident, as Hawkins hospitality and reputation of feeding the community easily gave them a pass during the madness that nearly burned down the whole city.


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It is restaurants like these that have made it safe for the common foodie to enjoy ‘hood eating spots, to the point that chef Roy Choi opened his Locol restaurant in Watts. With name-power alone, Choi had New York Times and L.A. Times columnists and foodies across the nation fearlessly strolling into Watts.

As a consumer, you see the positive Yelp reviews these spots garnered, the jaw-dropping Instagram photos, the celebrity cosigns, or that these little shops in the hood are getting their own booths at Camp Flognaw, and there’s a feeling of safety being relayed.

When such a wide range of eaters can get behind these restaurants, it’s something special, regardless of location.

The gangs in Watts are what they are, but thankfully there is a sense of respect through food, which has helped these businesses thrive and given the world a chance to enjoy the city’s unique flavors without fear.

Celebrity Grub Restaurants The Katchup

Watts Restaurateur Shares How Roy Choi’s ‘Locol’ Could Succeed Upon Reopening

When Roy Choi and Daniel Patterson opened their first location of Locol in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles, they hoped to bring a healthier fast food alternative at an affordable price. Fast forward a few years later, and the restaurant face of Locol has transitioned to a focus on catering while Choi works on developing Locol 2.0.

The chain had its obstacles, including significant drops in foot traffic over time and a particularly controversial zero-star review from the New York Times. As a result, money eventually ran out, as Choi explained on Twitter when the retail side shifted to catering. However, the question still existed as to why Locol had the problems it did. What could it do better in its next iteration?

Restaurateur Keith Garrett, the “Quesadilla Kingpin” of Watts and owner of viral sensation All Flavor No Grease, had some thoughts to share on the subject. As part of his conversation with Foodbeast’s Elie Ayrouth and Geoff Kutnick on The Katchup Podcast, he gave his take on what Locol was missing that the neighborhood wanted to see.

Garrett had almost nothing but praise for Choi’s concept and mission behind Locol. “Great guy, the building was beautiful, location was cool, prices were great!” he said on what people in the community thought. “You got an Asian guy that just opened up smack in the dead middle of Watts? Ooh, he hard for that! He gotta have heart! Let’s go see what the food do. So then you go in there, you see the whole staff is from the housing project and community over there… You’re like ‘Shit, let’s go support, let’s go see!'”

According to Garrett, all of Choi’s employees came from the projects, if not from Watts proper, then from nearby neighborhoods where he offered folks a chance to come together. It was an incredible undertaking and a project that opened up new possibilities for a community sorely in need of it.

But if Choi had such support from the locals for Locol, then why did it struggle? For Garrett, the menu played a big part into it.

“I think that Roy needed another dish on his menu, or three,” Garrett explained. “The dishes Roy came with were good, but were not fit for the hood. Don’t get me wrong, he had a veggie chili, BOMB… But there was just these other dishes on the menu that wasn’t getting bought a lot. You’re just not gonna survive on just some chili, or you’re not just gonna survive on one drink. You need something for the economy. Why would McDonald’s work versus Locol? They got a hamburger, fries, and a soda. He don’t.”


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Locol did sell burgers, fries, and chicken nuggets amongst their fast food staples. But for Garrett, those items tended to fall flat, mainly because they weren’t the same kind that the neighborhood was used to. That disconnect between what was being sold and what the community wanted may not have been the biggest reason, but it seems to have at least played a factor into foot traffic and sales.

It’ll definitely be something Choi addresses as he continues to develop his newest iteration of the concept, which should be ready to go some time in the near future. Meanwhile, the space is still being used to run catering and event operations. One also can’t understate the legacy that Locol left behind in its short time as a restaurant, as Choi made clear in a recent interview with GQ.

“No one talks about the two and a half years of jobs that we created,” Choi said. “Of attention, of discussion, of focus, of becoming LA Times Restaurant of the Year, of inspiring new generations… And the fact that we still have our catering operation going, and that we’re now raising more money to come back with the 3.0 version… maybe the retail part failed in its first iteration, but the business itself didn’t fail, I don’t think.”

When Locol’s return does come, Watts will be ready for the benefits it’s already shown to provide the community. Hopefully, the food resonates a lot stronger with them this time as well.

Features News

How Chefs Feel About Roy Choi’s Zero Star Review From The NYT

Recently, a New York Times food critic made headlines by slapping Roy Choi and Daniel Patterson’s Locol restaurant with a zero-star review.

If you’re unfamiliar with Locol, the chefs opened the fast food restaurant with the intentions of bringing wholesome, affordable food to economically challenged areas, referred to as “food deserts,” such as Oakland and Watts, California.

The Times’ Peter Wells was not impressed by the restaurant, at all, and sparked a conversation about whether it was a fair assessment of the restaurant.

From the notion that he was unnecessarily harsh to a “fast food” restaurant, to the defense that the food should be better considering the famous faces behind the restaurant, opinions were flying out left and right.

We reached out to some highly-respected chefs, and also took to social media to get a sense of what the culinary brotherhood had to feel about the review.

Chefs have to deal with critics all the time, from newspapers to Yelp reviews, so they know what it’s like to take on harsh criticism. For the most part, the chefs felt the review was a bit of a stunt to bring attention to the newspaper, but there was also an overarching feeling that there is still a lot of value to what the chefs are trying to do with the restaurant.

Check out some chef reactions below and see if you agree:


Andrew Gruel – Slapfish




“I think we are giving way too much attention to this review. Obviously Wells reviewed this place because he knows he needs to create controversy in order to continue to entice readers. He is one step away from creating click-bait at the expense of chefs like Roy Choi.

With that said, I think all fast-food/fast-casual joints are fair game for reviews — negative or positive, they will draw customers to see what all the commotion is all about and that’s the real chance to win your guests. People saying he shouldn’t have reviewed the restaurant because of Choi’s altruistic perspective is bullshit. It’s a restaurant and should be treated with all the same standards as any other restaurant.

In our digital world, Yelp is more powerful in the long run, so let Mr. Wells try and keep creating fake food news.”


Eddie Huang – BaoHaus

I received a 0 star @nytimes review, I pooped on Red Rooster, it’s important to hold people accountable even a saint like @RidingShotgunLA 🙏

— Eddie Huang (@MrEddieHuang) January 5, 2017


Linh Nguyen – Crave 410


“In my opinion the overall tone of the review was a bit harsh. Anyone who employs at-risk teens in a poverty stricken neighborhood deserves at least 4 stars.

As chefs, we are prepared to envision menus based on demographics, cost, availability and other variables. Reading some of the menu items LocoL provides I can see where the chefs were going based on flavor profiles, availability, and especially food cost. At the the end of the day, they humbled themselves with zero egos , bringing a seemingly impossible idea to fruition. They challenged corporate fast food on their own turf with healthier options at the same price point.

If that’s not ‘punk’ as fuck, I don’t know what is!

Also, The NY Times brought up good sentiments about the restaurant as well as even recommending items at the end of the article. It almost feels that Pete Wells wanted to give LocoL a couple stars. Maybe zero stars was intended to shock and get the article a little more shine.”


Aron Habiger – Cooking on the Lam


“When a reviewer comes in for a chef like Roy Choi or Daniel Patterson, the expectations are set at a certain bar. Any time they open a new restaurant, there’s pressure… the limelight is put on you, the pressure’s on, and you know you really have to nail it out of the gate. You expect, the minute they open that door, that it’s spot-on.

I feel bad when I see a really bad review for chefs. I know it hurts, ’cause I’ve been in those shoes, too.”

David Chang – Momofuku

David Chang with the subtweet here, but we do all know who he was talking about. He also jumped on Instagram and posted a photo of Locol, hashtagging it #welocol.



A photo posted by Dave Chang (@davidchang) on


Jason Quinn – The Playground DTSA


“That’s pretty brutal. I feel as if Pete Wells makes a fantastic point, but I think it would have been better not to write the review. These are two great chefs, opening alternatives to the evil of McDonald’s, and getting shit on.

Not only have some people “forgotten” about these demographics, no one seems to be concerned about their health.

I always thought it was very bold of Choi and Patterson to take on this venture. Always admired their dedication to feeding the masses, and didn’t know how it would end up. I certainly didn’t think the New York Times food critic would come out to write about them.”

Fast Food News

New York Times Gives Highly Controversial Zero-Star Review Of Roy Choi’s Locol

Chef Roy Choi is known for turning everything he touches into gold. He changed the food truck game with his Korean BBQ taco trucks, his Chego restaurants are wildly popular in Los Angeles, and in 2016 he tried to revolutionize the fast food industry by providing more wholesome options to economically challenged areas that are ‘food deserts’ in California.

While people have been singing praises to his and Daniel Patterson’s ‘Locol’ restaurants in Watts, and Oakland, the New York Times recently published a pretty scathing review of the restaurant.

The Times’ Peter Wells went in hard, saying that the food was so bad, it deserved a zero star rating from him.

“The neighborhoods Locol is targeting have serious nutritional problems, from hunger to obesity, but the solution isn’t to charge people for stuff that tastes like hospital food,” Wells said in his review.

On the other hand, zero stars might be a little rough, considering there are a lot of favorable reviews of Locol on Yelp. A closer look at these reviews, however, shows that most of the positive vibes come from praise for Choi and his concept and intentions, and not so much the food.

So while a less than favorable review might have been in order, zero stars is a bit shocking, so much so that Choi himself responded in an Instagram post:

“I know many of you want me to respond or snap back at him but the situation to me is much more than that. I welcome Pete’s review. It tells me a lot more about the path. I don’t know Pete but he is now inextricably linked to LocoL forever.”

Zero stars. I know many of you want me to respond or snap back at him but the situation to me is much more than that. I welcome Pete’s review. It tells me a lot more about the path. I don’t know Pete but he is now inextricably linked to LocoL forever. So I’ll share with you what I wrote to a friend and our team. We got that PMA: “The truth is that LocoL has hit a nerve. Doesn’t mean all people love it, some hate it. But no one is indifferent by it. That’s the spirit of LocoL. It has nothing to do with my ego. It’s something bigger than all of us. Pete Wells is a component to its DNA. His criticisms are a reflection of us and the nerve that LocoL touches. And our imperfections. Also the nerve of challenging the binary structure of privileged thought patterns and how life is not just about what’s a success or failure, but some things are real struggles and growth journeys. We all know the food is not as bad as he states. Is it perfect? NO. But it’s not as bad as he writes. And all minorities aren’t criminals either. And all hoods aren’t filled with dangerous people either. But the pen has created a lot of destruction over the course of history and continues to.. He didn’t need to go there but he did. That’s why he’s a part of LocoL. The power of this change and this nerve that it hits. It compelled him to write something he knows would hurt a community that is already born from a lot of pain and struggle.. Crazy, right? But I see it as a piece to this whole puzzle.” #LocoL #Watts #Oakland

A photo posted by Chef Roy (@ridingshotgunla) on

Wells did provide some positive feedback, saying the coffee was “excellent,” and the atmosphere was also a success. Doesn’t that warrant at least one star?

The review got Choi’s attention, the internet’s attention, and put Locol at the forefront of headlines.

If this headline helps the progress of Locol going forward, we might look back at it as something positive for the chain.


Roy Choi Wants To Save ‘The Hood’ With His New Restaurant

“In the ghettos of america we feed our children corrosive chemical waste.” – Chef Roy Choi, Owner of Locol

Powerful words from one of Southern California’s most influential chefs who is working to change the dynamic between healthier eating habits and people living in poverty-stricken communities.

With the opening of Locol, in Watts, Choi and business partner Daniel Patterson are taking on the fast food industry to make healthy food less expensive and accessible to all.

In this video, uploaded by Uproxx to YouTube, we get a first hand look at exactly what Locol is all about.

With locations now open in Oakland, California and the flagship store located in Watts, customers are beginning to understand what they’ve been missing out on.

Roy Choi speaks candidly about his vision and his determination to revitalize impoverished neighborhoods.

“What we’re going to do is tackle the fast food industry. And we do it like we know how as chefs; we just get in and cook.”

Locol features recipes built from scratch and all food made by hand, Locol is creating waves throughout the communities it serves, simply by creating an environment for people to care about food.

In areas dominated by franchised fast food chains, mom-and-pop grocery stores lacking organic produce, Locol is coming to the rescue. Reasonable prices and outside-the-box menu items have made venturing to Locol a new dining experience, while also providing employment opportunities for those living in the communities Locol aims to serve.


During a 2014 MAD Symposium and Conference, in Coppenhagen, Choi shared his well-spoken philosophy when describing exactly how he envisions the Locol legacy will endure.

“You wouldn’t have record execs making the music, right? That’s what musicians do,” he said. “But right now, we’re in a situation where cooks aren’t designing the food that most people are eating. The suits are. Let’s get back to the chefs making the food and the moral choices for the people. Let’s get in and cook.”

When describing how he came up with the name, Choi simply explained that there’s two very specific meanings behind “Locol.”

The name ‘Locol’ is two concepts together, like we’re fucking crazy to be doing this, and we’re local,” he said.

With a well known brand throughout Souther California, Roy Choi’s chef-driven vision is sure to stay alive.