'Culinary Geographer' Jonathan Gold Shows Us The Hidden Los Angeles

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For many who've never been here, or only been here briefly, Los Angeles presents itself as a great, sprawling mess; a tangled web of highway interchanges; wide, car-jammed boulevards; health-crazed peddlers of mashed yeast and pressed juice; double-decker buses ferrying tourists up against the hedged and gated mega-mansions of Beverly Hills; oily musclemen mugging for passersby along the Venice Boardwalk; the apotheosis of our celebrity- and image-obsessed American culture.

But there is another Los Angeles. Its poster boy is Jonathan Gold, the beloved, borderline deified, Pulitzer Prize-winning restaurant critic who for three decades has catalogued the carts, trucks, stands, and strip-mall dives operated for and by the often-overlooked immigrant communities that dot the L.A. Basin. His columns, first for LA Weekly and now for The Los Angeles Times, describe with lyricism, curiosity, and reverence the vast trove of traditional food available to Angelenos willing to move outside their comfort zone, or, as Gold calls it, "the there-ness beneath the there-ness." Viewed from above, his work amounts to no less than a secret guide to the city, a hidden map with stopovers in Canton, Cuba, Korea, Thailand, Vietnam, Iran, Pakistan, Guatemala, Ethiopia, and countless more, all within a 50-mile radius of the Hollywood sign.

Gold is the subject of a new documentary, aptly titled "City of Gold," which is as much a portrait of the man as the city in which he eats. If you are one of those, like director Laura Gabbert, who credit Jonathan with changing your opinion of Los Angeles, nudging you to explore new neighborhoods, this film is like a backstage pass to the concert. It dispels the notion that a food writer is someone who lives a life of carefree pleasure, ambling around the city and eating out on someone else's dime (although that fact does remain). Gold takes his work seriously: we watch him study maps, cookbooks, and regional histories. He parses foreign language newspapers garbled by Google Translate. He jokes about the burner phones used to make reservations undetected -- "it's like the fat man's version of 'The Bourne Identity'" -- and his proclivity for procrastination -- "I have the attention span of a gnat." We watch him eat -- octopus tostadas, Thai curries, boiled fish in green pepper sauce, mole-drenched enchiladas, grilled hotdogs -- but we also spend much of our time inside his Pasadena home or the passenger seat of his green, Dodge pickup truck, which, Gold sheepishly admits, was declared the most polluting car in Consumer Reports the year he bought it. "I'm an L.A. guy," he says. "I drive. I am my truck. My truck is me."

Structurally, "City of Gold" violates the cardinal rules. There's no conflict and no real narrative arc. It is, rather, a sort of loose, impressionistic collection of little vignettes that move seamlessly between family and professional life, the discipline of food writing, the role of the critic, tales of restaurant success, failure, and, perhaps most of all, the rhythms and diversity of the city itself. At one point, Michael Dear, a leading figure of the Los Angeles School of Urbanism, describes how the vastness of Los Angeles allows it to accommodate wave after wave of immigration. Unlike cities such as Chicago or New York, which grew radially outward from a central district, Los Angeles has no center, and instead propagates haphazardly in many different clusters, all periphery, with no governing logic. The movie itself mirrors that structure. It feels like an unordered list, as de-centered and jumbled as the city it celebrates. You could write the scenes on notecards, throw them in the air, and reassemble them in any order. I mean this as a compliment; it is a film about Los Angeles that also manages to be like Los Angeles.

A vast array of editors, colleagues, and restaurateurs are summoned to extol the virtues of Gold. Aside from one supervisor who can't help but lament his perpetual tardiness in delivering copy, the portrait is rosy, hagiographic even. Then again, perhaps a man, who, among other weekend traditions, accompanies his children to a museum to find and stand before a single painting for half an hour, taking turns describing its details to one another, really is a saint. There's a utopian flair to his celebration of multiculturalism that borders on naïve, but maybe it's just optimistic. Like a human skeleton key, Gold passes into every neighborhood in the city and is warmly embraced (often literally). He describes the gangster rap of Snoop Dog and Dr. Dre as easily and honestly as a steaming bowl of pho.

"City of Gold" offers a refreshing take on what it means to be a critic. In the age of the online review -- from Yelp and Amazon to Instagram and Twitter -- taste has been democratized and aggregated in a way that some feel obviates the need for individual experts. This film files a minority report: aggregators serve a purpose, but Gold's restaurant reviews do more than tell you where to eat or what to order. Roy Choi, one of the founding fathers of the food truck movement, explains: "I've got these tangled webs in my head and I'm trying to put them onto the plate. Jonathan Gold sees what I'm trying to do and helps me to understand it." Gold gives clarity to other people's ideas by writing about them. It's criticism as a generative act, not the musings of some pish-posh flaneur with his nose turned up, but a writer using food as a way to understand culture. The attitude is infectious. When Gold says that an "aria is in some ways equivalent to a well-cooked potato," you can't help but smile, and try to agree.

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Last week, I spoke to Jonathan Gold about the film, gentrification, aphrodisiacs, and what it means to be a critic. The interview below has been edited and condensed.

Micah Hauser: I moved to Los Angeles about two years ago, and my initial impression was negative in all the stereotypical ways. Although, having grown up in Texas, another unfairly persecuted place, I should probably be more open-minded.

Jonathan Gold: Oh, I think Texas is fair. There's nothing you can't say about Texas.

Well, that is true. In Los Angeles, I was genuinely shocked to realize that the city wasn't all plastic surgery and Beverley Hills. What do you think this film says about L.A. that people don't know?

I hate to use the "d word" but part of it is diversity -- many cities in the country have a lot of immigrant groups but it seems to be especially vibrant and concentrated here, possibly because of its size and possibly because it's so spread out. And also because of our modes -- that we tend to entertain in our backyards or apartment balconies, as opposed to places like New York or San Francisco, where people tend to entertain in restaurants. That's always been amazing to me about New York -- even rich people live in shitty apartments. I always love meeting people who have been in New York for a while and move out here and realize what they can rent for what they were paying for a one-bedroom apartment. They end up with those total gangster/drug dealer pads in the Hollywood Hills.

My theory is that in traditional cities people are pushed together in certain ways -- they all ride the subway, end up eating in the same places, walk the same streets -- whereas here it's possible not to do that. You can have not just a Mexican restaurant but a regional Mexican restaurant that may be cooking specialties from one specific town for people from that same town, and it's cool if other people stop in but that's not what they exist for. They exist to fill a specific cultural need. Add that to the fact that this is the center of a really big and rich and year-round agricultural region, and the second biggest port in the world, and that now we have second-generation chefs -- people who may be the children of immigrants, often who ran restaurants themselves -- who go out and cook at some of the best restaurants in the world, and when they come back, they use their training, technique, and knowledge of ingredients to transform the flavors they grew up with and make a sort of third taste that's neither European nor Asian or Latino but some sort of combination of both, and it's coming from the side of flavors rather than someone just looking to exoticize their cooking. You look at places like Taco Maria, or Night+Market, or Lukshon, or Cassia, and it's thrilling what they're coming up with.

In 2007, you won a Pulitzer Prize in the criticism category, a first for a food writer. Anyone who regularly reads your columns already knows that you write as much about culture as food. Do you think of yourself as a food critic, or something else? And why is food a useful vehicle for the type of writing you do?

I'm a writer, right? At certain points in my career I've written about music, I've reviewed movies, I've been an art critic, I've written about theater -- in a certain sense criticism is criticism. There are the same rigors; the methodology is very similar. We could all stand to spend a little time with the Frankfurt School guys -- and a lot of us do. To me, food is an interesting prism with which to see the world. And I could be doing it with something else but, you know, you wake up one day and you've been doing it for 25 years and it's like, "Oh, yeah, I guess I'm a food writer."

Do you push back on that notion? Do you get bored of it? Do you want to write about something else?

I could write about other things, and I'm often approached to do so. I don't know whether it's a comfort level that forces me to fall back on food. Pop music critics have expiration dates. There was a point when I was following a band, which I won't name, across the country, and I was sitting on the bed of the lead singer at 2:00 in the morning and he was telling me about how everybody in his band had parents who scrimped to put them through great private schools. They had gotten into the top colleges in the New York area, Columbia and Sarah Lawrence and stuff, and they quit to move to Chinatown and form a band. And I found myself blurting, "Oh, your poor parents." And it didn't necessarily mean anything but I knew, it was my first instinctual thought: I was on the wrong side. It was time for me to think of something else to do.

How has the role of the critic changed over your career? Is expertise part of being a good critic?

There's something nice about user reviews. Yelp has its virtues. It has that First To Review tab, so people strive for that and will often review places that are outside their comfort levels. They won't really have much to say about it, but they'll say that it exists and maybe they'll snap a picture that will be useful. I use this example too much, but when you're writing about a restaurant in Hacienda Heights designed to appeal to Taiwanese teenagers, knowing what Taiwanese teenagers think of it is not irrelevant. The role of the critic is to synthesize and put into context and figure out what the person or institution under review is trying to do, and then try to use their own standards to see how well they're doing it. It's possible that somebody on Yelp will do that, and they do sometimes, but Yelp is an aggregate and as an aggregate it certainly doesn't do that. And if you find the one writer on Yelp that you love and you just follow their stuff it's the same as choosing a critic. There's a writer -- she actually turned out to be a really good crime novelist, named Steph Cha -- and I loved her Yelp reviews and I always specifically read her stuff. But that's no different than finding a columnist on The Huffington Post you like and reading him, right?

Do you feel that the movie reveals in a way that is mysterious to people what goes on behind the scenes for an individual critic?

I don't know. The movie uses me as a central figure and a lot of its vision of L.A. is through my eyes and what I say, but I certainly didn't set out to do that. It doesn't actually show me reviewing a restaurant. That was one of the ground rules -- they absolutely couldn't film me going to a place that I was in the process of evaluating. It's Heisenberg's uncertainty principle -- you can't do both. My absolute number one commitment is to my writing and to The Los Angeles Times, and I wouldn't do anything that would compromise that mission even a tiny bit. They were all places that I reviewed years and years and sometimes decades before, and that I tended to like. There are a lot of restaurants in the movie, but we went to even more -- I think 50 or 60 in the course of filming. It was a ton. It took that long for us to get used to each other -- every week or two, Laura [Gabbert, the director] would show up with a camera guy and somebody holding the boom and just sit in the back of my truck while I drove around L.A. I think it takes awhile to work through the platitudes and get to something that might be a little more interesting.

Was it a little bit like, "Why are these people in my car?"

It got truly annoying at some points! There was often something I really had to do, or a deadline I was really on, or a publication that was screaming at me. Imagine doing a story on somebody, but it takes five years.

Most of the restaurants in the film are owned and operated by first-generation immigrants. Many have stories about how your review propelled them to new levels of success, often with wonderful results, like making enough money to send children to college. Do you ever think about that part of the job?

I don't think about it all. I can't think about it. Just like somebody writing a movie review can't worry about what the director thinks, or how it's going to do at the box office. A lot of the stories in the film I hadn't heard before. I don't talk to them about those things. It's a nice side benefit of the job that I get to make people who are really good at what they do slightly more prosperous. But it must be said that one of the restaurants featured in the film, Antojitos Carmen, closed a couple of years ago and moved to Iowa. A review wasn't enough to keep it there.

Where is the line between appreciation and appropriation? Do you ever feel guilty about turning people onto unknown places that will inevitably lead to those places, or their neighborhoods, changing in some way? Is there a point at which exploring new neighborhoods becomes harmful or pushes people out?

That's something I never thought about until recently. If you're talking about gentrification -- yeah, there's a point at which a neighborhood will become one group or economic stratum. People will go to a restaurant I've written about and look around and think, "Wow, there are some nice houses around here, and the people are great, and I could eat this food," and it will bring them into a neighborhood and they'll be aware of it in a way they hadn't been before. And maybe three years later they'll hear that a house is for sale and they'll buy it. But I'm just a tiny little part of that process. The classic gentrification model isn't as cut and dried here. If you're talking about white people moving in -- not so long ago the San Gabriel Valley was as white as any area in L.A., maybe whiter, and suddenly there's an awful lot of Asians who are living there. If you're looking at South L.A. or Compton -- it was overwhelmingly black and now it's overwhelmingly Latino, and it's not necessarily different economic players moving in, it's just that the populations are shifting, have always shifted, continue to shift. San Marino was the last bastion of whiteness in L.A., and now it's 50 percent Asian. La Cañada is shifting in that direction. It's great -- we're a polyglot city and everyone's admitting it. It's not like San Francisco, where families who have been there for generations are being pushed out for rich, white, tech people. Or at least not at the moment it isn't.

Aphrodisiacs: fact or fiction?

Fiction, I believe. But oysters can't hurt.

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Micah Hauser is a freelance writer currently living in Los Angeles.

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