The correct spelling of LōKL Gourmet includes a diacritical mark over the letter "ō" to indicate a long vowel sound. To be frank, the first time I saw the spelling, I thought it was an inside joke, the restaurant equivalent of metal umlauts. I felt as if I should stand in the middle of the McLean market and deli, flicking a disposable lighter above my head and shouting for "Stonehenge!"
But then co-founder Michael Larson set me straight on the inspiration behind the name: Yes, LōKL is a truncated form of the phonetic spelling of "local," just without the schwa, that puckish little upside down "e." The missing schwa is a nod to Larson's research.
"I read something in a marketing book that said names with four letters are 8 percent more successful," he said. "Don't quote me on that 8 percent."
I can't speak to the power of four-letter trade names, but I can attest to sheer attraction of LōKL's brisket melt, a juicy handheld bite that encapsulates everything right about this refined strip-center shop. The sandwich begins with an airy square of ciabatta, delivered fresh daily from Lyon Bakery. Thin slices of brisket — smoked at the Organic Butcher of McLean, then crisped up in LōKL's kitchen — are layered inside the bread, which is slathered with house-made garlic aioli. Topped with caramelized onions and a stringy layer of melted provolone, this brisket melt goes down like the best backyard burger you've ever had.
For those keeping score, this single lunchtime snack features the work of three local artisans — a butcher, a baker and a brisket-melt maker. It's locavorism in lowly sandwich form, yet another sign that eating close to home is no longer reserved for the tasting-menu set. This is an agenda I can wholeheartedly endorse. In fact, if short, four-letter words issued by a critic can also increase the likelihood of LōKL's "farm-to-counter" success, well, grāt! I'm hapē to help .
All jokes aside, LōKL, as its name indicates, is committed to local products, both in its sandwiches and on its shelves. The latter are stocked with items from more than 50 area producers, many of which have become personal favorites: Kinderhook cookies, 'Chups ketchups, Capital Candy Jar treats, Whisked pastries and Vigilante Coffee. You can eat and drink well at LōKL without ever ordering something from the kitchen.
Larson and chef Nelson Trejo are the creative forces in the kitchen. They've been collaborating for years, well before LōKL opened its doors early in 2016. Trejo, a native of El Salvador, started as a junior chef at Nourish Market, the small, now-defunct health food chain where Larson worked for several years before launching his gourmet deli. The pair may best be known for their chicken salad, a prized commodity at farmers markets and at LōKL.
The secret to the chicken salad is its cooking method: Breast meat is slow-poached for hours before being shredded and whipped together with light mayonnaise, smoked paprika and other ingredients. Yet when pressed between slices of toasted ciabatta, the chicken salad doesn't land with the impact I expected, even if the spread's creamy, featherweight texture is expertly counterbalanced with the watery crunch of cucumbers and celery. The salt levels are the problem: They're barely discernible, allowing the sandwich's flavors to scatter in all directions, never fusing into something more arresting.
I prefer the big, sloppy pleasures of Dad's Meatball Sub, based on a recipe nicked from Larson's father, Art, who practically tortured his children with lost weekends in the kitchen, sloooowly whipping up his meatballs and red sauce. "It would take all day," Larson remembers. "We would just be dying for it by the end of the night."
The sub requires no patience at LōKL. It also takes no time to devour the beast, a toasted hoagie roll packed with fat, yielding meatballs formed with beef, pork, veal and — for a belt of umami and acid — fire-roasted tomatoes. Draped in a sweet, slow-cooked tomato sauce and outfitted with a layer of skintight provolone, these orbs are hedonism in meatball form. They would make an Italian forsake his nonna's recipe.
Despite such gut-busters as the brisket melt and the meatball sub, LōKL has one foot squarely in the health-food world, an echo of Larson's Nourish days. With a single sip of the shop's "prevent" drink — a blended potion of kale, celery, Fuji apples, oranges and ginger — I'm reminded of the iron palate such health-conscious fare can require. The drink tastes like someone rototilled a garden and slushed it into a cup. If I'm going to shock my system, I'll do it with the bracing sourness of MTO Kombucha's ginger brew, available on draft here.
The sandwich menu has a healthful air about it, too. You can safely skip the herb and lentil burger — basically a sandwich in which a pair of veg patties are tucked between slices of sprouted multigrain bread — unless you really enjoy the leaden thud of compressed pulses. Personally, I prefer to take my healthfulness in more measured doses, such as LōKL's turkey Reuben, a warm and respectable version in which the lean meat stands in for corned beef. Or the shop's rocking tuna melt, in which a genteel combination of tuna salad and avocado is goosed by a rebellious layer of pickles.
Then again, if given half a chance, I'll always opt for excess over health. LōKL has me covered here, too. There are gluten-free brownies by the register — a moist, perfectly acceptable variation on the real deal — and more lusty pleasures hiding in the refrigerated case. The lemon bars, dusted with confectioners' sugar, are a solid choice, with their light, lemon-drop sweetness. But my will power is reduced to zero in the presence of LōKL's double-chocolate brownie, in which milk chocolate chips are tucked inside the square and Ghirardelli chocolate is drizzled on top. These treats are — how do you say it? — d-vīn.
8100 Old Dominion Dr., Suite E, McLean. eatlokl.com.
Hours: 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday-Friday; 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday; 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday.
Nearest Metro: McLean, with a 3.3-mile trip to the deli.
Prices: $5 to $11 for breakfast fare, sandwiches and salads.