In Watts, foodie haven Locol cooks up a healthier lifestyle — and a new outlook

It was lunchtime Thursday, and the cooks at Locol had kicked into high gear. They quickly placed beef patties on the grill and scooped fries onto paper plates as the line at the front counter began to grow.

Some customers were there for the $5 cheeseburger, while others opted for the $7 garden salad or turkey chili bowl. By 1 p.m., most of the chairs in the Watts restaurant were filled by people of seemingly all ages and ethnicity.

Kmond Day, 42, and his childhood friend Reginald Queen, 57, sat on black and white wooden blocks in the middle of the food spot started a little more than a year ago by chefs Roy Choi and Daniel Patterson.

As R&B music blared in the background, the friends said Locol had changed their eating habits.

“I’m selective about what I eat now,” Day said. “I’ve lost weight and work out.”

Choi — the man behind the popular Kogi BBQ food truck empire — and San Francisco restaurateur Patterson opened Locol with a mission in mind: Bring affordable and healthy food to under-served areas.

They’ve since opened two more restaurants in Oakland.

For their efforts, Locol was chosen as the Los Angeles Times’ restaurant of the year.

Food critic Jonathan Gold made the announcement Thursday evening during the kickoff event for The Times Food Bowl. Spanning the month of May, the Food Bowl is intended to celebrate the city’s food scene and promote awareness of hunger, sustainability and waste reduction. It will include panel discussions with chefs, a weeklong Night Market at Grand Park and a series of themed dinners at restaurants around the city.

”You feel like it’s your best friend’s house … and when you eat there, you feel like you’re part of something bigger,” Gold said of Locol after he announced the award.

For Choi, the honor is bittersweet.

“We know that Locol earned this award, and that’s why I’m happy. But there are still injustices happening in Watts. People still have a hard life,” he said.

“This award changes what it means to have a restaurant. It’s not just about making a pretty plate.”

For Patterson, it was the love, honesty and perseverance of the people of Watts that he said inspired him most.

”I hope this award means we can have more moments of hope and kindness,” he said.

Aside from a few convenience stores and fast food restaurants near Locol, the area is largely devoid of supermarkets. Options for healthy dining are slim. Many residents have a hard time finding fresh fruit and vegetables. And if they do, it often costs more than they can afford.

The “food desert” phenomenon affects communities nationwide, and those living in such areas often experience higher rates of obesity, diabetes and heart disease.

According to the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research, 4 in 10 low-income adults in L.A. County are food insecure.

While reminiscing about growing up in Watts during a more violent time, Day said Locol’s healthy, affordable options — coupled with its comfortable ambiance — gives the community much more than just a meal.

“Our options while growing up were limited. You either became a drug dealer or joined the military,” Day said. “But this restaurant now gives people hope. You feel tranquility here. Peace of mind. You’re not bothered by anyone.

“When kids see this place and know people who work here making an honest living, they think they can have a different life. There’s a sense of pride,” Day said.

Shanika Grant, a cook starts her shift at 9 a.m., when no one else is in the restaurant.

“As I’m preparing the coffee and getting the food ready, I think about how blessed I am,” she said.

Grant grew up nearby, in the Jordan Downs housing project. Since she started working at Locol, Grant and her five kids are no longer on welfare. “I’m able to pay my bills and get my kids what they need,” she said.

At first Lydia Friend, also known as “Mamma Watts,” wasn’t interested in working at the restaurant.

It was a Sunday morning in 2016, and she had just left church when she noticed a crowd of people on the corner of Wilmington Avenue and East 103rd Street. The restaurant wasn’t opened yet, and Choi was looking to hire.

“Someone asked me if I wanted to apply for a job, but I said no and that I was retired,” said Friend, 57. “But then Roy came over.”

Now the restaurant’s manager, Friend has been an activist in Watts for decades. In 2004, she started an organization that works with at-risk families and children who have lost someone they love to gang violence.

“Roy said he needed me and handed me an application,” Friend said. “The rest is history.”

Most of the Locol employees live in the neighborhood, and many have had difficult pasts. “Some of our workers had been in prison, were drug addicts, or couldn’t read or write,” Friend said.

“Roy,” she said, “spent two years here learning about our hurt and anger before opening up Locol.”

”You can’t just go there. You gotta be accepted into the community. I come from those roots, and it was the way I was brought up,” Choi said Thursday night.

For a year after opening the restaurant, he and his employees participated in twice-weekly group counseling sessions where they would talk about their lives.

“Roy shared his secrets, and he knows ours,” Friend said. “We are a family here. We stick together.”

She glanced up as customers walked by.

“Growing up in Watts, I learned to be negative first so that when the negative hit, it don’t feel so bad,” she said. “Roy broke my wall and taught me to be positive.”

melissa.etehad@latimes.com

Follow me on Twitter @melissaetehad

Copyright © 2017, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
68°