January 19, 2020

Jonathan Gold on eating your entire city

The first question I asked Jonathan Gold after watching “City of Gold,” the new documentary about his life, was basically this: Did you set out to change Los Angeles, or just to find the best tacos?

In the film about the Los Angeles Times food critic, the food Gold has spent a lifetime uncovering gets at least equal billing to the city in which it is cooked. 

We follow Gold into South Los Angeles, where he enjoys a fat, grilled hot dog at Earlz Grille, then east to Boyle Heights for tacos slathered in a pumpkin seed-based salsa at Antojitos Carmen, on to Alhambra for a staggering plate of Chengdu Taste lamb cubes pierced with toothpicks and drenched in cumin, and west to Attari Sandwich Shop, which Gold describes as basically re-creating a Tehran cafe from 30 years ago.

You like to eat? You will love this movie — and you will grow to love L.A.

I have extolled Gold in these pages since 1999, from the first time I read him compare a rolled South Indian pessret in a Cerritos deli to an Eero Saarinen structure, “a beige, lentil-flour pancake with the dull, smooth sheen of a freshly pressed pair of gabardine slacks, as big around as a phonograph record and bent into a kind of ’50’s-curvilinear shape.”

That was eight years before the Pulitzer Prize judges found Gold, who at the time was writing for the LA Weekly, and awarded him their prize for criticism, the first ever for a food writer.

And now comes this 90-minute documentary, the near-perfect vehicle to distribute Gold to the masses. 

The film weaves Gold’s descriptions of great L.A. meals from his Times and LA Weekly columns with stories of the people who cook the food, Gold’s life story (and quirks) and the music, architecture and life of Los Angeles. Director Laura Gabbert has managed to make one of the finest movies ever about Los Angeles, without once mentioning the movies or Malibu.

Jonathan Gold’s L.A. unfolds before us as a flat, mini-malled and traffic-choked metropolis, far more brown than blond, whose Technicolor allure explodes solely in plate after plate of food.

“That was intentional,” Gabbert told me in a Q-and-A session I led with her and Gold after a screening at the Landmark Theatre on March 12. 

“We just followed the lead in his writing. This is his Los Angeles, and it’s many of ours. This is the way we see the city.”

“City of Gold” depicts an L.A. of immigrant bounty. The most moving moments of the film, hands down, come when once-struggling restaurant owners — Thai, Latino, Ethiopian — tell how a single Jonathan Gold review brought hordes of new customers to their restaurants and transformed their lives.

The delicious irony is that these immigrants succeed by cooking the most authentic native food possible. They resist the urge to Americanize their food, and when Gold discovers and rewards their craft with his words, they become successful Americans. 

At a time when entire political movements have organized against immigrants, I wondered aloud if the movie wasn’t a full-throated retort.

“I’ve been writing about immigrant communities for 30 years,” Gold responded. “I like immigrants. I think we should pretty much let everybody in — well, maybe they should be able to cook. Donald Trump is a guy who eats a lot of white bread.”

I asked the 300 people in the sold-out audience how many had visited a restaurant because of a Jonathan Gold review. Most of the hands went up, like the many toothpicks jutting out from that Chendu Taste lamb. That’s why I asked Gold if his mission was to find great food, or to transform L.A.?

“If I’m doing anything that’s beyond writing about food,” he said, “it’s to get people in Los Angeles to be a little less afraid of their neighbors. And it’s easy to live in one part of town and not really interact with other parts. There are a lot of ways to do it. But you might not go some place to see an Indian movie or a Nigerian art exhibition, but if I tell you that someone is making a bowl of noodles like you’ve never had in your entire life, maybe you’ll make that drive.”

Gold grew up in a “highly Reform” L.A. Jewish household, where his father was “the most overeducated probation officer in the history of Los Angeles County.” The household was filled with high culture, if not great food. The links between food, tradition and family that Gold has spent a lifetime searching out didn’t exist in his childhood home.

There was one exception.

“My father definitely considered deli to be a sacrament,” Gold said.

I quickly asked Gold to name his favorite deli in a city rich with them.

“Langer’s,” he said, to wild audience applause. “The pastrami sandwich — there should be a marble statue of it in the Civic Center mall.” 

In a scene in the film that takes place in New York City, Gold and his wife, L.A. Times Arts and Entertainment Editor Laurie Ochoa, dine at an Italian restaurant with New Yorker food writer Calvin Trillin, whose books “Alice, Let’s Eat” and “American Fried: Adventures of a Happy Eater” influenced Gold, then a UCLA liberal-arts graduate, concert cellist and nascent punk rocker, to explore his food obsession through words. Why is it, I asked Gold, that so many great American food writers, from A.J. Liebling to Calvin Trillin to Gold to Michael Pollan and Mark Bittman — are Jews?

“Um, “ he semi-joked, “we think about food a lot. We’re a hungry people.”

But if a good appetite, as Liebling wrote, is the first requirement of a great food critic, Gold’s achievement goes well beyond that, as does this movie. Hunger leads to curiosity; curiosity leads to discovery; discovery leads to empathy. It is a recipe as simple as a slice of sashimi, and as beautiful.

At the Sundance Film Festival, where “City of Gold” premiered to critical acclaim last January, a viewer pointed out that it was the only doc that wasn’t “a social issue documentary.”

Yet somehow, Gold said, it is exactly that. Most journalism focuses on the things that divide us. Gold’s focus is on one of the few things that unites us.

“The idea, which is so completely obvious,” he told the Landmark crowd, “is live in your entire city. Reach out to people. Everybody has something worthwhile and delicious for you.”

“City of Gold” is screening across the city. Follow Rob Eshman's thoughts on food on Instagram and Twitter @foodaism. 

Rob Eshman is the publisher and editor-in-chief of The Jewish Journal.