Jonathan Gold is the Pulitzer Prize-winning food critic for the Los Angeles Times, but he is just as much a geographer. A new documentary, “City of Gold,” directed by Laura Gabbert, sheds light on his work in the glittering mosaic of cultures that is Los Angeles.
“I am my truck, my truck is me,” he soliloquies in the first few minutes of the film. And as you’ll see, he is in his green pickup truck a lot—it’s his explorer’s ship navigating sunny, sprawling LA.
“Food is the prism through which I look at the world,” he explained. “Somebody made that food, somebody’s eating that food, somebody washing the dishes. If you’re going to the one restaurant in Boyle Heights where the customers aren’t from the block but driving in from Brentwood in a Mercedes, that’s an important part of the experience. You can’t just write about the fish enchiladas, right?”
Back in college at UCLA, Gold took a course in culture geography, during which students were assigned a block of Los Angeles and asked to make a culture map of it.
“The one I had was sort of fascinating,” he said. “There was the first real sushi grade bar in town—at the time there was no sign. There was a Korean anju bar that served appetizers and soju—although at that point no one knew if soju was legal because of the proof … so they served it out of battered teapots. … The people who owned the 7-Eleven were Bangladeshi. The laundromat had these groups of people who basically hoarded the dryers for one another, it included people speaking indigenous [languages] from Mexico and Central America. And there was this for some reason this German bar from when the neighborhood looked very different.”
He said, “And you drive past this block 1,000 times you wouldn’t look at any of this stuff. And yet when you pick it apart strand by strand, there was so much there you could spend your entire life writing about it. In some way, it’s obvious when you go to Tokyo or when you go to Ginza—all the building are about eight floors high, each floor filled with establishments … but in LA it’s not as obvious.”
The film features appearances by chefs Roy Choi, Ludo Lefebvre, and David Chang. The latter tells in an amusing anecdote how he chanced on a restaurant so good that he was going to keep it just to himself—until he looked up and saw a review by Jonathan Gold hanging in the corner.
The Internet has been a big help in supplementing Gold’s on-the-ground research.
In one project where he tried to eat almost everywhere in Koreatown, he said, he made use of online resources, including one he found the most valuable—a Korean equivalent of Seamless. It would have the menu or at least a description of the restaurant, and he would be able to put it through Google Translate and figure out what part of the country the food was from and maybe the specialty the restaurant served.
“I have stacks of newspapers and phone books in so many languages I can’t read,” he added. “But if there’s an address, if I haven’t been there I can put it through Google. … Then you go in and maybe it’ll be something like the 17th blood sausage specialist in Koreatown. Oh my God, there’s so much blood sausage. … Let me say that soondae [blood sausage] is one of the great foods of the world but … I think that maybe knowing about two places I like is … fine,” he laughed.
How does he pick which places to write about?
“In a weird way I try to figure out if a place is intellectually interesting, if there’s a path through it. I try to figure out what the chef or restaurateur has in mind, and how they’re trying to do it, whether they succeeded or not.”
Sometimes, something else trumps all that.
“But realistically,” he said, “if I go to a place and they have a dish that just rocks my world then the rest of it almost doesn’t matter.” He chuckles. “Which is probably bad but if somebody can do one thing that is just beautiful, you just want to tell the world about that one beautiful thing.”
Currently in theaters.