Laura Bliss is CityLab’s West Coast bureau chief. She also writes MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic, Sierra, GOOD, Los Angeles, and elsewhere, including in the book The Future of Transportation.
From taquerias to haute cuisine, a new documentary tracks a famed food critic as he lives and dines in L.A.
In most cities, the phrase "food politics" might evoke images of grocery-store deserts or Bibb lettuce growing on a solar-paneled roof. But in Los Angeles, for Pulitzer-winning restaurant critic Jonathan Gold, it's in a bowl of pho, or fish kidney curry, or an order of tacos calabacitas.
"Food is political here," he has said. "It plugs into the rhythms of the city and the world and engages all the important questions of social justice, health, diversity, and inclusion."
Above all, food is a way to navigate and communicate between the Southland's countless, often disparate cultures and ethnicities—the breadth and depth of which are often poorly understood by outsiders.
A new documentary, "City of Gold," follows the critic on several years' worth of tours of greater L.A. dining—which, given the scope of his writing, likely range from downtown's rarified gastro-cathedrals, to Valley taco trucks, to strip-mall Uzbek outposts—as he hunts for his next great scoop.
In his reviews, Gold describes not just dishes, but their urban context. A Oaxacan mole is as much about its chocolate flavor as it is a person's connection to home—or a chance to rethink what "Mexican" means. "He is the food-writing equivalent of Raymond Chandler, someone who creates his own particular way of looking at the city," the Los Angeles Times reports food writer Allen Salkin saying in the film.
Premiering last week at Sundance to standing ovations, the film might be called a love letter to the city, says director Laura Gabbert. In an video interview, she describes coming to L.A. as a grad student having "bought in" to common stereotypes about the city: Its artifice, its impenetrability, its lack of culture. "But after about a year, I started reading Jonathan Gold's [old L.A. Weekly] column 'Counter Intelligence,'" she says. "It really opened my eyes to the diverse, interesting, paradoxical city it is."
Gold has been credited with encouraging a trend of "extreme eating" in Los Angeles and beyond ("I'll have the boiled silk cocoons and the pig uterus, please"). But for Gabbert, his more important contribution is an expanded definition of food criticism—and of what it means to be an Angeleno.
"If you live in Los Angeles, you're used to having your city explained to you, by people who come in for a couple of weeks and stay in a hotel in Beverly Hills," Gold says in the film. "People find it hard to understand the magnitude of what's here, the huge number of cultures that live in the city who come together in a beautiful and haphazard fashion. And the fault lines between them are sometimes where you find the most beautiful things."
At Indiewire, watch an exclusive clip from the documentary in which Gold describes his "inner life" of "meat and limes."