The Words and Wisdom of Jonathan Gold
The Words and Wisdom of Jonathan Gold (a.k.a. food critic of the Los Angeles Times)
A food writer reveals the local ethnic restaurant isn’t just a cozy place to eat; for millions of new immigrants, it’s the modern-day highway to the new American dream and a reflection of who we are
If sprawling boulevards lined with ethnic restaurants up and down the sidewalk define the cultural boundaries of our greatest cities, then food writing and the art of criticism have become our culinary cartography.
In Los Angeles, one of the world’s undisputed food capitals, that makes restaurant critic Jonathan Gold the city’s Ferdinand Magellen. Voyaging atop his exploratory palate and innate gift for empathy, and later persuaded by the scribe of his fondest recommendations and “Best of….” lists, when we read Gold’s words we’re taken on a circumnavigation around the globe, sometimes without ever leaving the same zip code.
Within this seemingly endless urban checkerboard of combustible cultures, a city where where a fabulous new Korean restaurant is typically be wedged in between a Dunkin Doughnuts and a Dollar Store, distances in and around Los Angeles aren’t measured in miles. Distances are measured by time — as in the amount of time if takes to drive from one place to another. Even a seemingly short drive of just a couple of miles can take an hour or more during the busiest time of day, and in LA, at whatever the hour, it always seems to be the busiest time of day. This fact of daily life and living has made the automobile here, more than in any other city, the extension of one’s personality and an advertorial moxie.
Gold probably spends just as much time sitting in his pick-up truck idling in traffic driving from one restaurant to the next, with an occasional detour to the newsroom in between, than he does eating and writing about it. All that sensory anticipation behind the wheel makes him the de facto observer, a ponderer, and even something of a wand-waving wizard who will use the tool of his trade, the laptop keyboard. Together, man and machine possess the powers to make or break not just a newly-opened restaurant, but ultimately the composition and character of the transitioning neighborhood he’s passing through.
Gold is the food and restaurant critic of the Los Angeles Times. He’s been writing about the local food scene for the past 34 years, and shows no signs of going on a diet. Lucky us. If anything, he’s eating more and writing more than ever. Now a nationally-known and widely-respected figure in food (and by extension cultural) circles, he’s redefined the role of a restaurant critic, who are now forced to compete among amateur impressionists posting hastily-worded reviews on Yelp and TripAdvisor who often seem utterly incapable of coming up with a descriptive word other than “awesome” — a throwaway portraiture that’s become so ridiculously common that it no longer carries any meaning.
Now age 56, he rightly labels himself “the belly of Los Angeles,” a dis-joined megatropolis of unique spices and sometimes clashing, and even shocking, surroundings. Given his extensive research habits and his obsessive attention to every detail influencing the ingredients and flavors he tastes and absorbs, Gold probably knows more about the various forms of international cuisine that 99 percent of the natives from those lands. He teaches us there’s really no such thing as “Mexican food.” But there is Tex-Mex, Yucatan, and Oaxacan. There are unique cuisines from Jalisco, Veracruz, Chiapas, and a host of other techniques and influences — all of them intriguing (and still relatively little known).
In 2007, Gold became the first Pulitzer Prize winning writer ever in a new category awarded for food and restaurant criticism. In an all-too crowded field of snooty bow-tie wearing snobs from Paris and New York obsessed with the classic Continental food scene, winning the Pulitizer was an astounding honor for a truck-driving food writer who typically shows up casually during the middle of the day at strip malls and farmers markets, ordering whatever seems tempting off the menu and which entices pushing the boundaries of his all-too weathered taste buds. Indeed, Gold was the very first world-class critic (and writer) to bypass the traditional rabbit maze of concentrating on trendy upscale restaurants owned by rich people and frequented by the elite. Instead, Gold choose to explore and discover the thousands of smaller mom and pop shops scattered throughout the city of angels, those serving up savory family recipes handed down from generation to generation, a stir pot of regional tastes all over the world gifted to us by who immigrated to America. Through their successes, they came to redefine our local neighborhoods and the food scene.
Fittingly, Gold was born and raised in Los Angeles. Trained as a classical musician until he graduated from college at UCLA, he once aspired to play the cello, but discovered he wasn’t good enough to make a living at it. So, sometime around 1982, at age of 22, Gold took an entry-level job as a proofreader. While working in a cramped office just west of Downtown LA, Gold decided to kill his boredom by eating at a different restaurant every day along Pico Blvd, a virtual yellow-brick road spearing through a hodgepodge of different ethnic groups and economic classes, many blocks stoked with an array of small, mostly privately-owned family-run restaurants which would seem the furthest subjects for food criticism. In fact, this was (and remains) where real people eat. Along an avenue latticed from Downtown Los Angeles to Santa Monica, Gold managed to accomplish the gut-busting feat, and then emboldened by his experience, started writing a regular column about the local restaurant scene for LA Weekly.
Over the years which have since passed, we’ve come to appreciate that Gold doesn’t just write about food and restaurants. He’s writing about people. He’s writing about history. Our people and our history. He’s writing with respect, with love, and with cultural appreciation. He celebrates our differences, which in his view do not divide us, but instead unite us sometimes under a leaky roof where the air conditioner makes too much noise, but where the Dolsot Bibimbap is the best West of the I-5.
In his columns about food and restaurants, he’s really writing about new immigrant experience in America, some of them setting up taco stands, saving their hard-earned money, and then finally opening up their own restaurant inside a crumbling strip mall backed up to the dumpster next to a gas station. He writing about their lives, their history, their ambitions, their imaginations as he describes the taste of each bite.
Yes, Gold writes about the Los Angeles food scene. But his experiences and the vivid impressions he conjures up in his descriptive writings could very well be from any 21st Century city in America. Birmingham is just as likely to have a remarkable new Thai restaurant as Boston or Baltimore. And the decaying and dangerous inner-city neighborhoods once abandoned and downgraded by some as unlivable after the rich White people fled to the suburbs and stayed hidden behind the walls of gated communities are being transformed into thriving centers of cultural diversity and new economic activity.
American is no longer colored in red, white, and blue. Increasingly, our nation is black, brown, and yellow. Some natives are bothered by these changes. Some even insist that immigrants should be kept out. Yet, we do love their food, don’t we? Alas, there’s the rub. A century ago, Italian cooking and Chinese food were considered exotic. Now, eating spaghetti or stir fry is as American as apple pie.
The cycle of rejuvenation is perpetual. New restaurants continue popping up in our old neighborhoods. Unfazed by planting roots in “bad neighborhoods” and intensely prideful of their heritage and customs, the multitude of tiny mom and pop-style eateries have become a common thread holding together the fraying American quilt. With each new immigrant family scrimping and saving and eventually opening up a new storefront, we’re invited to enter another door of cultural intrigue and culinary perception. To this end, Los Angeles prides itself on being the ultimate amusement park for the taste buds.
Thankfully for us, today and tomorrow and the next and the next, Jonathan Gold is willing to make yet another drive across town to someplace new that he heard about. He’s eager to take yet another bite, and be our guide on the voyage to new discoveries, not just about those wonderful food and restaurants which would otherwise remain hidden, but about our changing neighborhoods and the people who make them special.
Note: Jonathan Gold is the subject of a new movie that’s just been released nationally, “City of Gold,” which is highly recommended, especially for writers, foodies, and lovers of Los Angeles.
Photo Credit: Top photograph is a portrait taken by Alex Hoerner at alexhoernerphoto.com