Laura Bliss is a staff writer at CityLab, covering transportation and the environment. She also authors MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in the New York Times, The Atlantic, Los Angeles magazine, and beyond.
The celebrated food critic, who died on Saturday, rejected the city’s clichés by wandering its streets like a culinary flâneur.
While every city has its descriptive clichés, Los Angeles must suffer from some of the worst. “Endless” sprawl, “relentless” sunshine, “glitzy” Hollywood: These words are used so often as the city’s wide-angle establishing shot that it’s easy not to inspect closer. If you drive past quickly, the strip malls and palm trees look like a blur.
Jonathan Gold did not drive past quickly. The Pulitzer Prize-winning food critic, who died on Saturday at age 57 of pancreatic cancer, wrote about Los Angeles with radical specificity. Through its food, Gold put his hometown in a close-up, helping redefine the way the rest of us talk, write, and reflect on it.
Gold’s decades of restaurant columns for L.A. Weekly and the Los Angeles Times were revered for two main reasons. First, though he wrote magnificent reviews of the city’s finest dining establishments, a tour of East Side taco trucks was the multi-course tasting menu he preferred. Before it was cool, Gold focused on holes-in-the-wall more than haute cuisine. Second, similar to Anthony Bourdain’s culinary globe-trotting, Gold’s writing was never just about food. It was about the people and places that made the food worth eating—as good a way to understand the extraordinarily multi-ethnic city as any other.
Gold also uplifted a manner of moving through L.A. that is out of the norm for many people. In a city where traffic can put a damper on anyone’s more adventurous instincts, and finding the most direct driving routes is like a competitive sport, Gold seems to have usually opted for the long way. He meandered, roamed the surface streets, and kept his eyes open, like some kind of food flâneur. Heading out to review a restaurant rarely meant traveling only to that restaurant. To sample a new goat stew or congee, there would often be multiple stops along the way.
Peter Meehan, the former editor of the now-folded food magazine Lucky Peach and Gold’s longtime friend and dining companion, told the L.A. Times about the sudden detour the critic took off the freeway on a trip to (ostensibly) a buzzy French bistro. “Mid-ride, he swerved across four lanes of traffic and took us to eat fried chicken neck tacos in East L.A.,” Meehan said. “We were sitting there, gnawing at bones, next to a family whose kids were doing their homework while eating those tacos, and he was beaming. He loved the entirety of the landscape of L.A.” It showed. As of 2016, Gold reportedly had more than 250,000 miles on his beat-up green pickup truck.
Paying close attention to the places he visited was another way Gold showed his love. In one of his best-known columns for L.A. Weekly, where Gold became the first food writer in the country to win a Pulitzer in 2007, Gold described the year he spent after college trying to eat his way down Pico Boulevard. The street, a major east-west artery that spans from downtown’s fashion district to the beaches of Santa Monica, was a perfect subject for him because it was (and is) relatively overlooked, compared to neighboring Sunset, La Brea, and Wilshire boulevards.
“No glossy magazine has ever suggested Pico as an emerging hot street; no real estate ad has ever described a house as Pico-adjacent,” Gold wrote in the 1998 column. Yet the boulevard’s unremarked-upon nature put it at the heart of the central L.A. food scene, Gold argued, because it allowed a staggering array of cuisines to take root. He continued:
Pico is home to Valentino, which specializes in preparing customized Italian food for millionaires, and to Oaxacan restaurants so redolent of the developing world that you half expect to see starved chickens scratching around on the floor; to Billingsley’s, a steak house, which could have been transplanted whole from Crawfordsville, Indiana, and to the Arsenal, a steak house decorated with medieval weaponry; to chain Mexican restaurants, artist-hangout Mexican restaurants and Mexican restaurants of such stunning authenticity that you’re surprised not to stumble outside into a bright Guadalajara sun. Greek and Scandinavian delis still flourish on stretches of Pico that haven’t been Greek or Scandinavian since the Eisenhower administration.
That is not “Mexican restaurants” writ large. That is four types of Mexican restaurants, with the Oaxacan variety earning its own evocative sentence. Likewise, in Gold’s hands, Pico is not another four-lane forever stretch of pavement. It is a particular place—a string of beads, each with a particular character when inspected up close.
No wonder Gold was known for being protective of L.A. and its culinary offerings. He chose to champion restaurants, not disparage them. When out-of-town food critics got it wrong, Gold let them know. But proud as he was, Gold wasn’t promotional. Boosterism requires a gauzy lens, a fat paintbrush, to obscure the unbecoming details. The Pico Boulevard essay ends with Gold disappointed with a joint he’d once loved and wondering if he’d romanticized it in his youth. Seven years earlier, he also wrote honestly and precisely about watching his own neighborhood, Koreatown, pick up the pieces after the L.A. Riots:
Most of the supermarkets are open again—my neighborhood was luckier than those a few miles south— and shoppers no longer fistfight in the aisles over chickens. The restaurants are mostly open again too—the several that burned tended to be unluckily close to liquor stores or discount outlets—though the atmosphere these days is far from merry. Monday night I went to one of my favorite Korean restaurants, Yee Joh, close to the burned-out complexes on Hoover and Alvarado. (The mall it anchors sports a professionally lettered, though misspelled, sign that says “We Support Rodeney King.”) Yee Joh was emptier than usual, brightly lit and fairly grim: The Korean-American community doesn’t have much to smile about this week. The food was good as ever, but I almost felt like crying, and they seemed relieved to see us go.
Many readers in Los Angeles felt like crying this weekend. In the trenchant words of Norman Klein, another local critic, Los Angeles is the “most photographed and least remembered city in the world.” The hazy strips of pavement, the lightly dusted palms: They’re familiar from the background. But that is Los Angeles. So Gold got closer. His practice was one that anyone who loves where they live can try to emulate. By stopping his truck and sitting down to eat, Gold brought the city into the foreground. We’ll remember it.