As someone who moved to Los Angeles for college having never been to the city in my life, getting into a car — well, learning how to drive a car, and then driving for an indeterminate amount of time — to find a great place to eat was as foreign to me as the word pupusa. And as I got to know pupusas, mariscos, pho, injera, larb, fesenjan, soon dubu and other L.A. food terms I no longer find exotic (only comforting and delicious), I came to know the writing of acclaimed, Pulitzer Prize–winning food critic Jonathan Gold. From LA Weekly and Gourmet to the Los Angeles Times, if he was writing about or critiquing it, I was reading it, eating it and slowly but surely realizing my repetitive internal monologue of “Man, I would love to be a food writer” was more than an anxiety-driven pre-graduation proclivity.
Ten years later, Sundance Selects is releasing City of Gold, a documentary about Gold’s remarkable, storied career and his relationship with his native, notoriously hard-to-define city. Directed by Laura Gabbert (No Impact Man) and featuring some of Los Angeles’s most beloved chefs — Roy Choi’s Kogi truck still attracts a line around the block — City of Gold is a must-see for food enthusiasts, Yelpers, Instagrammers, cooks, anyone who grew up in Los Angeles or around ethnic cuisine, slurpers of noodles, grillers of galbi and anyone, anyone who has ever loved a taco.
I sat down with Gold to discuss the film and the state of food media and left with an urgent hankering to sit in traffic on my way to an incredible restaurant in between a weed dispensary and an exotic fish store in a drab shopping center somewhere on Pico Boulevard.
So many incredible restaurants in L.A. are hidden away in nondescript strip malls, and you’ve found a ton of them. Is the key to discovery just rolling the dice and eating in strip mall restaurants?
Well, that’s one way to do it. I will admit that — I don’t do it as much as I should — but whenever I’ve done that, like eaten at every restaurant on Las Tunas Boulevard in San Gabriel or every taco truck in east L.A., it’s always interesting and I always find something that I never would have found out about otherwise. It’s too easy to look at the usual signifiers and go to the new places that opened, or go to the places that somebody writes about on Chowhound or Eater or whatever. Sometimes they’re good; sometimes they’re not. A couple months ago, I noticed that a huge number of Chinese restaurants opening in the San Gabriel Valley had the word “Tasty” in their names, as if people thought that this was the magic. So I went and I ate at 12 different places named Tasty: Tasty Dining, Tasty Choice, Tasty Tasty, Tasty Table. So many Tastys.
Was there by chance a Tasty Dragon in there? Just curious.
I didn’t see one, but I’d go to a Tasty Dragon. But the thing that the Tastys had was that they were almost all opened by extremely new immigrants. People would name a restaurant Tasty just because everyone else is naming a restaurant Tasty, even though the Chinese names are completely different. I found some places that I absolutely would not have otherwise, including one place that was attached to a bowling alley. By attached, I don’t mean they’re at the same mall; there’s actually an entrance from the restaurant into the [bowling alley]. It had been written about for its Shangdong-style dishes, basically because there was a famous Shangdong restaurant a block away that had really long lines, and they were probably trying to get the overflow. It turned out to be the only place in that part of the SGV that had hand-thrown Lanzhou-style noodles. Do you know how amazing it is to have someone make hand-thrown Lanzhou-style noodles?
Can you watch it?
You can watch it! There’s a little glass window there. If I hadn’t been doing a survey of restaurants named Tasty, I never would have found it.
Korean-Mexican has become a well-known fusion cuisine with roots in L.A. I recently encountered the Vietnamese pho taco. What are some other cultural hybrids you’ve encountered because of L.A.’s unique everybody-in-one-place mash-up?
This is kind of an aside, but I was with Roy [Choi] in Oahu, doing a piece for Food & Wine. We did a swing through the North Shore to go to the shrimp trucks there. There was this place by the side of the road that said “Korean tacos.” I said, “We’ve got to stop there.” He says, “Absolutely not.” I kept going, “Wait a second, you have to go to this place.” We swung back and there are scarcely words to express how awful it was. I said at one point, “You know you’re responsible for this, right?” He says, “I am n— oh, actually, maybe I am.” It’s less about the hybrids, though. I should probably mention this place called Trois Familia, run by Ludo Lefebvre. It’s basically his French take on a Taco Bell menu. It’s so weird, yet compelling. He does nachos with Mornay sauce.
He could cook anything and I would eat it.
You’d probably want to taste his take on the Crunchwrap Supreme, right?
That is notoriously my favorite item on the Taco Bell menu. How do you find the balance between having the coolest job ever and serving the public, letting them know why you do what you do?
I don’t think there’s a contradiction. I definitely have a job that I’m not allowed to complain about, right? It’s like “Oh, poor you, you have to go to six steak houses this week while half the world is starving.” I don’t think it’s contradictory. I think that at the point where I stop enjoying it and the idea of going to a new restaurant didn’t make me excited even a little bit, it’s probably the point where I should hang it up. Just like a theater critic, right? If you’re in a place where the curtain rising doesn’t leave you at least a tiny glimmer of hope that you’re going to be seeing the best thing ever, then you should probably, I don’t know, go into food writing. [laughs] Or maybe wine writing. Wine writing is what food writers do when their knees start to go.
Do you think the next generation of food writers will value the small, underrepresented family-run restaurants that you’re so well known for covering, or are we potentially headed for a resurgence of the fine-dining trend?
It goes in waves, right? There was a resurgence in the ’90s of this kind of restaurant that I call, for better or for worse, the “Wine Spectator restaurants.” When those restaurants are in the ascendant, when you get the idea that people are going a) out of a sense of obligation, b) out of a sense of status and c) not going to a particular place out of hunger that they want to see fed, then we’re not in a good place. I would like to think that smaller cultural restaurants will be a focus for awhile only for the reason that so many people writing about food or becoming interested in food are interested in food on a level that they can afford and comprehend, and those tend to be those kinds of places.
I think I said once in a story about ramen that ramen is something that encourages extreme connoisseurship, that almost fanatical parsing of just tiny differences between styles. The thing about ramen is that it’s more than likely that my intern knows more about ramen than you do. The person who’s a fanatic about ramen is the person who will go on to do other things, too. When I was coming up, almost all the interesting writers started out writing about rock ‘n roll because it was the one thing at a newspaper that the elders were unsure of their ability to comprehend.
There are a lot of people who are interested in breaking into this business. Does anyone really need to go to graduate school to be a good food writer? What is the most necessary thing to do?
Grad school is a great thing in general. Journalism schools really do teach you how to report in a certain way, but I’ve got to admit, people ask me about it, and I’m not necessarily in favor of it. But now, there are so many ways to get published. Don’t go to grad school, just start a blog and be really good, then people can’t ignore you and you can do what you want.
That is in fact what you told me ten years ago when I asked if you would write me a recommendation for a master’s in food writing. I believe your exact words were “Start a blog, and give a fuck about it.” Thank you again for writing it, by the way.
I obviously don’t need to repeat that to you — you paid attention. But there are so many food writers, and so few food writers who you really like to read.
[Editor’s note: At this point, City of Gold director Laura Gabbert joins the conversation.]
Did you have it in mind that the number of fine-dining restaurants would be the absolute minimum? Can L.A.’s culinary story be told without its fine-dining scene?
Gabbert: No, I think it should be told with it. There are ground rules going into making a film, that we couldn’t film Jonathan reviewing in any restaurants, that sort of thing. We gravitated towards places that were easier to shoot in, some quintessential Jonathan Gold restaurants. I think in an ideal world, we would have had one more of those types of restaurants, but it’s about the mode of exploration and the curiosity I think more than having this perfect representation of high and low and different cultures.
Gold: I mean, showing me in Spago, what does that say? In Los Angeles, the fancy places aren’t French or European; they tend to be sushi bars because that’s the one place where people will spend ungodly amounts of money. I can’t even imagine taking a camera crew to a place like Sushi Q.
Gabbert: But it’s true, we did film in many more of the mom-and-pop places. Trois Mec is interesting, too, because it was Ludo reinventing what he’s doing.
Gold: The first dinner we had together was at Ludo Bites 1.0. I’ve grown to know his food so well as pop-up restaurants. It would be a bakery one week, then it would spend a month at an art gallery, then it would be a breakfast place downtown. He feels like a fabric of the city.
Can you understand him? [Laughs]
Gold: Of course I can! There was actually an issue between us. There were a lot of subtitles in the film at one point, including subtitles of his thing. I said, “You absolutely cannot,” because he hates it! Because they use it to make fun of him whenever he does the Top Chef–y type of shows.
Gabbert: I think you’re totally right. After we did a couple of rough-cut screenings, people would complain, “I can’t understand what he’s saying.” But I think Jonathan is totally right about that. There’s something a little condescending about putting [subtitles there].
City of Gold opens on March 11 in select theaters.