The Sultan of Stripmalls: An Ode to Jonathan Gold

Our features editor—L.A.-born Justin Bolois—reflects on the legacy of a literary hero. 

By Justin Bolois

I can’t be the only young food writer in Los Angeles who kept the small, black Jonathan Gold 101 booklets stuffed in my glove compartment. These pamphlets chronicling the city’s essential restaurants became a precious resource amid fickle Yelp reviews—the Thomas Guide for a generation plugged into Waze. JGold was our iron-stomached navigator, making a patchwork terrain seem digestible. His legacy is a palimpsest stained with pig-blood soup, animal innards, and chicken grease.

What I found in Jonathan—the Sultan of Stripmalls, the Belly of Los Angeles—was not just a compass. He was also a model for how to navigate food media: an iconoclast bucking norms. He recast immigrant-run restaurants as the treasures of L.A.’s dining scene, with mariscos trucks erected as monuments. The multicultural landscape he sketched out felt utopian—but in a real, tangible way. Less kumbaya around the campfire, and more kimchi jjigae on every street corner. JGold’s influence rendered power lunches on the Sunset Strip passé; dumpling houses became the new form of cultural cachet for Hollywood’s brokers. The question became: If you didn’t know a good xiao long bao spot, what were you even worth in this town?

JGold’s model of integrity deepened for me when I moved to NYC four years ago to work as First We Feast’s features editor. Out here, restaurant criticism read like bloodsport. I naïvely expected to be inspired by compassion and curiosity, the hallmarks of Gold’s restaurant reviews. I was hoping for musings on the octopus nervous system, or the wild discovery that Malaysian royalty had graced a dinky restaurant in the Valley. But these were nowhere to be found. The more I entrenched myself in NYC, the prouder I was of this dissonance—that the man who defined L.A.’s culture did so wearing a Langer’s deli cap behind the wheel of a weathered green pick-up truck.

The e-mails I exchanged with Jonathan over the years were sweet and idiosyncratic. Our relationship never developed into late-night joy rides, but our connection did grow after I moved to New York. There, in a press junket interview for City of Gold, he regaled me with tales of backyard barbecues at Snoop Dogg’s studio, and how disappointed he was in Will Smith for ordering chocolate chip ice cream at Spago’s. He admired my vintage “Celtics Busters” Lakers t-shirt from the Showtime era. I considered it a big win.

When I directed a docu-series called Food Grails about South L.A.’s emerging African-American taco movement, I met him at Mama’s Kitchen on Slauson Avenue for an interview. There are so many great moments left on the cutting room floor, but I’ve kept one of my favorites around as a special memory: It’s Jonathan likening the rise of guys like Taco Mell and All Flavor No Grease to the career arc of cult rappers.

“In the old days, when you wanted to buy a tape of something, you’d have to go down to the Compton swap meet, and somebody would be selling it off a blanket,” he says in the video clip.

“And you’d have your Dre mixtapes, or you’d have Toddy Tee ready for your delectation. And there’s something great about Too Short going pretty damn close to gold and never being in a mainstream record store. He was doing exactly the music he wanted to be doing. He didn’t have to worry about what a major label would think. And in a way, when some music stays downtown, that’s just the way it happens. When food stays downtown, then it comes up and it’s...damn, right?”

I repeat: Toddy Tee for your delectation.

Jonathan understood that these guys were on the cusp of something big, manifesting their dreams from the underground.

After our conversation, he ate a turkey taco and went outside to his car, where I asked to take a picture of him. I still have the Polaroid with me: It’s JGold standing in front of his pick-up truck on the street, looking dignified in red suspenders. The paint is peeling on the perimeter of his vehicle. Behind him, we see the familiar tableau of Los Angeles small businesses—a salon, a cannabis dispensary, a dance studio—save for what looks like a crucifix crowning his head. The cross is, in reality, a regular old utility pole for some power lines. In the unfocused background of the Polaroid film, it takes on a sublime quality. I can’t help but smile, though, in imagining that he probably reserved his devotion for tacos.

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