A healthy fast-food joint that got panned by a New York Times food critic is crushing it

The biggest restaurant story of the year has arguably been New York Times critic Pete Wells' withering review of Locol, a fast-food concept that brings high-quality, affordable food into urban neighborhoods. Wells awarded zero stars to the restaurant, calling the chili bland, the burger dry, and the chicken, well, "the best thing to do with it is pretend it doesn't exist."

Food blogs erupted in protest. Most did not take issue with the content of the review. Some called it "mostly right." But critics argued the review was in poor taste, given the restaurant's admirable mission to change lives in some of the most neglected food deserts in America.

Locol has two locations, in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles and a gentrifying part of Oakland. The company makes hires from disadvantaged areas, regardless of an applicant's work experience, criminal record, or even literacy, and pays above most fast-food wages.

I recently made a return trip to Locol to see how the food fared since Wells' review. Take a look.

Welcome to the fast food revolution, according to Locol's website.

Audrey Ma/LocoL

As more Americans turn to plant-based foods for health or environmental reasons, new fast-food chains are seizing the opportunity to compete with legacy brands like McDonald's, KFC, and Domino's. They serve low-calorie menus at similar prices.

Audrey Ma/LocoL

Source: Business Insider

Locol has carved a niche in the space by serving neighborhoods where residents don't have access to or can't afford high-quality meals.

Audrey Ma/LocoL

Locol beefs up the nutritional value of its foods by replacing some ingredients with healthy alternatives.

Audrey Ma/LocoL

Source: Business Insider

The hallmark of the menu is a $5 cheeseburger prepared "classic roadside" style with lettuce, tomato, pickles, and onion. The patty blends 70% beef and 30% tofu and grains.

Melia Robinson/Business Insider

The burger arrived with cheese melted and a "special sauce" delightfully spilling out the sides. The bun, which even Wells called "undeniably excellent," was toasted and spongy.

Melia Robinson/Business Insider

Not to be outdone, the $5 veggie burger has a surprisingly meaty texture, though it's made from grains, legumes, miso, onion, and garlic. The produce crunched with every bite.

Melia Robinson/Business Insider

The patty was expertly executed — crunchy out the outside, soft and chewy on the inside.

Melia Robinson/Business Insider

The fries, a new addition to the menu, are oversized and tossed in salt, pepper, and paprika. They tasted surprisingly bland, but at $2 a carton, they're a bargain.

Melia Robinson/Business Insider

I also tried a $2 "foldie," a taco-quesadilla hybrid that has melted cheese, braised beef, salsa, and beans. It was greasy and had the texture of wet dog food. I quit after two bites.

Melia Robinson/Business Insider

The 12-piece basket of chicken nuggets was no technical masterpiece. Bits of ground chicken came together inside a light breading. Overall, they tasted gummy and bland.

Melia Robinson/Business Insider

And I'd order them again. Dunked in barbecue sauce, they were the ultimate portable guilty-pleasure food. What more do you want from fast-food chicken nuggets?

Melia Robinson/Business Insider

Not every item on the Locol menu is a home run, but it beats McDonald's fare any day. The burgers, grilled to perfection and stacked with fresh produce, had me in fast-food nirvana.

Audrey Ma/LocoL

And despite using high-quality, locally sourced ingredients, Locol manages to keep its prices competitive with legacy brands. I got my entire haul for $27. I'll be back (unlike Wells).

Audrey Ma/LocoL

RELATED: 17 fast food items you won't find in the US

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17 fast food items you won't find in the US
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17 fast food items you won't find in the US

Pizza Hut's Chicken Tikka Pizza

Where: India

What it is: A signature dish at Pizza Hut India, the doughy pizza base is topped with chicken tikka spiced pieces, red peppers, and red onions. 

Photo credit: Business Insider

Burger King's Spam and Cheese

Where: Japan

What it is: This breakfast burger comes with canned spiced pork, pickles, cheese, mayo, and lettuce served in a wheat bun. 

Photo credit: Business Insider

KFC's JingGu Double Down Max

Where: Korea

What it is: Forget about the bread. KFC Korea wedges a hash brown, bacon, and cheese, between two fried chicken patties. 

Photo credit: Business Insider

McArabia Chicken

Where: Arab countries and Pakistan

What it is: Two grilled chicken patties with lettuce, tomatoes, onions, and garlic sauce inside a pita.

Burger King's Sandwich Nugget

Where: Israel and New Zealand

What it is: Bite-sized nuggets just like you would see in the US on a sesame bun with crunchy lettuce and mayo. 

Photo credit: Business Insider

Chicken McDo with McSpagetti

Where: Philippines

What it is: Not your average combo. This fried chicken drumstick is served with spaghetti in a meat and tomato sauce. 

Photo credit: Business Insider

McDonald's Chili Cheese Bites

Where: Various European countries 

What it is: These bite-sized nuggets are stuffed with melted cheese and spicy jalapenos from Honduras. They come in orders of six, nine, or 20 nuggets. 

Photo credit: Business Insider

McDonald's Raspberry Pie

Where: Hungary

What it is: This Hungarian warm chocolate pastry is filled with raspberries and cream. 

Photo credit: Business Insider

KFC's Twister Wedge

Where: Russia

What it is: A hash brown with cheese, lettuce, and tomato wrapped in a fried wheat wrap.

Photo credit: Business Insider

McDonald's Burbur Ayam McD

Where: Malaysia

What it is: McDonalds' spin on a typical Malaysian dish: chicken strips on top of porridge, topped with onions, ginger, shallots, and chilies.

Photo credit: Business Insider

KFC's Chizza

Where: Singapore

What it is: KFC's new Chizza has a fried chicken base layered with tomato sauce, ham, pineapple chunks, mozzarella. It's topped off with the signature KFC cheese sauce. 

Photo credit: Business Insider

McDonald's Crispy Shrimp Burger

Where: Greece

What it is: Breaded shrimp, tomato, and iceberg lettuce served on a sesame bun with sweet chili sauce.

Photo credit: Business Insider

McDonald's Nutella "Burger"

Where: Italy

What it is: A burger lookalike that's actually filled with Nutella and served as a dessert.

Photo credit: Business Insider

Dunkin' Donuts' Olive Chewisty

Where: Korea

What it is: This chewy donut is made with olive oil and tapioca starch. 

Photo credit: Business Insider

McDonald's Bacon Roll

Where: U.K.

What it is: McDonald's has branded its Bacon Roll as the "breakfast of choice for all bacon lovers." The bacon is sourced from British farms and served on a roll with either ketchup or brown sauce.

Photo credit: Business Insider

McDonald's Hong Kong Sausage N' Egg Twisty Pasta

Where: Hong Kong

What it is: This breakfast bowl comes with curly pasta, eggs, and sausage, mixed in a hot chicken or tonkotsu pork broth with greens. 

Photo credit: Business Insider 

McDonald's Chicken Maharaja Mac

Where: India

What it is: A double decker grilled chicken patty with habanero sauce, jalapenos, tomatoes, and shredded onions on a bed of cheddar cheese and lettuce. 

Photo credit: Business Insider 

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SEE ALSO: This fast-food chain you've probably never heard of is making a killing selling $8 burgers

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