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Jonathan Gold … Poet Laureate of LA?

‘CITY OF GOLD’: THE WAY I SAW IT--Jonathan Gold makes the short list of raconteurs of the City of Angels. So many novelists, reporters, and screenwriters have painted a portrait of our city, from Raymond Chandler to F. Scott Fitzgerald, Joan Didion to Dominick Dunne and Bret Easton Ellis. But, none perhaps has been painting a landscape of our city’s magnificent diversity better than Jonathan Gold. 

A new documentary, City of Gold, brings us along as the famed food critic (and oh, so much more) explores neighborhoods from Koreatown to Alhambra. Gold has an encyclopedic knowledge of strip mall ethnic spots we might refer to as a “hole in the wall.” At one point the film, culinary master tasker Evan Kleiman describes her first Gold-approved experience, “You drive into a mini-mall, OK, really?” 

City of Gold features cameos from a number of foodie luminaries, including Nancy Silverton and Roy Choi, as well as immigrants whom Gold refers to as entry level entrepreneurs who are grateful for the role Gold has played in their success, extending their reach beyond the neighborhood to the rest of us. 

For Gold, food is culture and culture is food, the thread that holds all of our precious neighborhoods together in such a breathtaking way. Though a Gold appearance elicits stage fright from Ludo Lefevbre, the master chef who helms Trois Mec, yes, the same strip mall mecca where a ticket might be as hard to come by as front row seats to U2, his typical domain is the countless ethnic eateries and food trucks throughout the city. 

Gold introduced us to street food before Anthony Bourdain and Guy De Fieri were doing it. He says he honed his love of L.A.’s neighborhood food scene during a proofreading job fresh out of college. Bored, he decided to sample as many restaurants as he could along the long stretch of Pico. 

By 1986, he began penning his Counter Intelligence column for LA Weekly, which he moved to the LA Times from 1990-1996 before heading to New York as the restaurant critic for Gourmet. Gold headed back home in 2001 where he continued to write for Gourmet while reviving his Counter Intelligence Column at LA Weekly. He returned to the Times in 2012. Jonathan Gold’s 101 Best Restaurants in the Times Magazine section is the dog-eared bible of just about every LA foodie. 

Reading a Gold article is luscious, his words carefully crafted to tell the story of each restaurant and those who share their love with food. It’s no surprise, really, that he is the first food critic to have won the Pulitzer Prize in 2008 and was a finalist again in 2011. 

He is meticulous in his reviews, sometimes returning to a restaurant a dozen or more times to make sure he gets it right. Roy Choi credits Gold’s writing for “helping me figure out what we wanted to do.” His well-honed palate can tear apart a dish to its elements. Jitlada’s Jazz Singsanong says, “No one in the whole wide world knows what I put in my (Thai) coffee, not even my family, but he knows.” 

The magic Gold spins does much more than introduce us to restaurants that might be out of our comfort zone, although that alone would make him a master. He’s like a culinary Midas, helping turn intimate ethnocentric eateries into financial successes. Bricia Lopez of Guelguetza shares, “One day my dad walked in and says, ‘Where did all these white people come from?’” She and her siblings now run the restaurant, which hit the LA foodie map after Gold introduced the restaurant and raised the profile of Oaxaca cuisine. The pride Lopez expresses that Oaxaca cuisine is now appreciated by others outside the region is palpable. 

The film also tells the story of Genet Agonafer of Little Ethiopia’s Meals by Genet who embodies the American Dream. She raised her son by putting in long hours as a waitress. When her son finished medical school, he opened the restaurant for her. Post 9/11, she claims Gold’s review saved her restaurant from a slump that would have shuttered her business. 

As Angelenos, we are so fortunate to have Gold as our urban treasure. He captures the soul of our sprawling metropolis, from Koreatown through the Westside, from Little Ethiopia and Tehrangeles to Alhambra and just about every strip mall and taco truck in between. 

City of Gold is currently playing at the ArcLight Hollywood and Laemmle Town Center 5, Encino. 

 

(Beth Cone Kramer is a successful Los Angeles writer and a columnist for CityWatch.)

-cw