In the history of Los Angeles food criticism, everyone is eating the crumbs off Jonathan Gold’s table. Aptly described as the “high-low priest” by writer Dana Goodyear, L.A.’s longtime food scribe for the LA Weekly and now L.A. Times changed the course of eating habits by recasting a trove of outlying immigrant restaurants into heroes of the city’s dining scene. Gold had a knack for tracking down seafood pancakes in Koreatown, or chicken-neck tacos in East L.A., and a talent for making a sprawling city bond over its culinary diversity. As he exposed delicious hole-in-the-walls, drawing attention to lesser known places, he inspired a generation of bloggers to do the very same.
No obscure question seems to phase him on his weekly live chat. Maybe that’s because Gold’s job requires him to eat at anywhere in the range of 300 to 500 restaurants a year—an impressive feat, but nowhere near enough if you consider that Koreatown alone has the highest concentration of restaurants per square mile in the country.
One man can’t do it all by himself, which is why the voice of L.A. food relies on a small network of hand-selected tipsters fittingly named JGold Scouts (who in effect freelance for the L.A. Times). These distinguished members are the substitute eyes, ears, legs—and bellies—of Gold. Loosely speaking, each reporter focuses on a specific culinary beat in different (or sometimes overlapping) areas (i.e., Chinese in the San Gabriel Valley, or Mexican in East L.A.) and are tasked to submit brief informational restaurant reports. The recruits themselves fall all over the spectrum. Some got their start in the food world as independent bloggers; others are published authors and Yelper Elite. Most, however, are bilingual, giving them a distinct advantage when it comes to sniffing out new places and following the rumor trail.
Interactions between Gold and his recruits, for the most part, take place via Twitter and email. “There’s only been one occasion where all the scouts have gathered in a single place,” said Chinese food expert Clarissa Wei. “And that’s because a crew was filming a segment for the Jonathan Gold documentary.” Either way, the impact of being affiliated with him is undeniable. “It’s a moment I’ll never forget,” said writer Javier Cabral, referring to the initial email he received from the L.A. Times. “Jonathan has been such a big role model for me.”
We’re dying to know though: How did they land on Gold’s radar? What was it about these people that made them stand out? We ask five scouts about their background in food, the tactics they use to find new places, and what it takes to be invited into the inner circle of Jonathan Gold.
Note: Only recently was the title JGold Scout dropped (although the roles remain the same), primarily due to functionality issues on the L.A. Times website. According to editor Russ Parsons: “The reason we dropped the name was because there was no advantage to using it in our new blogging platform. Originally, we’d hoped that it would be a linking device (if you clicked the title, you’d connect with other reporters), but the platform doesn’t use that.”
Area of expertise: Vietnamese
Geographical target(s): Alta Dena, Pasadena, Glendale
How did you start writing about food: I went to live abroad in Vietnam between 2007 and 2008. My maternal grandparents were there, and I was really inspired to go explore and eat. I had been reading a bunch of food blogs at the time (which were kind of new back then) and I really respected the blogger Noodlepie, who happened to be based in Vietnam. Print media was dead in America at that point, but I really wanted to write. Luckily, I got to work for various ex-pat and English language publications, covering food and lifestyle. During that time I wrote an article about a lunch lady who used to camp outside the office I worked at. Unlike other stalls that specialized in one dish, this woman served a new noodle dish every day of the week. Anthony Bourdain’s production company took an interest and contacted me about it. Before it appeared on Bourdain’s show, the area wasn’t really a tourist destination. But now if you zoom in on Goolge Maps, you’ll see her name: Lunch Lady.
Scouting tactics: I read hyperlocal blogs and troll the Hot New Business feature on the Yelp app. I’m constantly refreshing the app to see what’s new in my neighborhood. I’ve also befriended people in the restaurant industry, which helps me keep tabs on any inside scoop.
Memorable JGold interaction: I told him I shopped for produce at Food 4 Less and he likened it to cattle being moved for execution: shoppers enter in one door, shop through a defined path, and exit out a designated door. Kind of like cows in CAFOs. He said I should check out Super King instead, an Armenian mini-grocery chain that has superior produce.
Cecilia Hae-Jin Lee
Area of expertise: Korean
Geographical target(s): Koreatown
How did you start writing about food: I have a degree in Art and Biochemistry. I thought to myself, I really can’t make a living as an artist, but I wanted to do something creative that I could survive on. They say write what you know, and I knew food.
When I first started writing about Korean food, it was considered a secret cuisine. Everyone knew about Thai, Japanese, and Chinese, but Korean was more elusive—for several reasons. Sometimes the menus would only be in Korean. Or the servers would be nervous when serving non-Koreans. Now we have second generation Koreans opening their own restaurants and more English-speaking Koreans. Plus, there was a big immigration of Koreans in the ’70s and ’90s, which helped propel the cuisine. There are something like 10,000 restaurants in Los Angeles, and Koreatown has the highest concentration of restaurants per square mile than anywhere else in the country, so it keeps me busy.
What helped build your reputation: My first book, Eating Korean, was really the first book written by a Korean-American author who actually cooked the food. At first everyone was afraid to publish it, because they thought no one would be interested, but people ended up buying it. I also wrote a bunch of travel guides for Frommer’s on South Korea. Most of the guides were written by white guys, and I thought someone with an insider’s look into the culture should be writing them. I felt I had a responsibility to do it.
Scouting tactics: I always try to find the restaurants that no one has heard of. I steer away from the new, hip places and instead focus on the family-run joints. I drive around town a lot, and I’ll pull over and write the address down of something that looks interesting. Usually it’s a good sign when I come across a Korean spot that doesn’t have any English on their menu; it clearly means their not diluting the food to American palates.
Website: clarissawei.com, 626foodettes.com
Area of expertise: Chinese
Geographical Target(s): San Gabriel Valley
How did you start writing about food: In 2011, I studied abroad in Shanghai, writing about American food in China. I found bagels and Mexcian food, and I remember taking my Shanghai friend to try it—she was completely shocked. She didn’t know what a bagel was, or why avocado paired well with Mexican food. As an American in China, I realized I had a perspective that Chinese writers didn’t. I started thinking about my childhood in Los Angeles and how my family would go to the San Gabriel Valley every week for Chinese food. It occurred to me that, actually, I know a lot more about Chinese food than other people who haven’t grown up with this stuff. In 2012, I was reading a lot of LA-based Chinese food blogs, and many of the bloggers weren’t interviewing the chefs or staff. There was a lack of in-depth reporting. I speak Chinese, so I saw it as a niche that I could fill.
What helped build your reputation: Andrew Zimmern found me through an LA Weekly list I wrote about the top 10 handmade noodles. In that article I talk about the province of each noodle dish, which he thought was an interesting take. I ended up giving Andrew a tour through the SGV, showing him 8 to 10 different restaurants that showcased a diverse profile of regional specialties—foods that you can’t really find anywhere else in L.A., like stinky tofu and pig intestine. In addition to that, I have a side blog with Kristy Hang called 626 Foodettes. I had written an article about Hunan Mao, explaining the differences between Hunan and Sichuan cuisine. Jonathan Gold ended up quoting it in one of his articles.
Scouting tactics: I live in the SGV, so sometimes when it’s midnight I’ll drive into the plazas to scope out the restaurants. I’m also close with Jim Thurman and David Chan (who has eaten at over 6,000 Chinese restaurants).
Area of expertise: Mexican
Geographical target: East Los Angeles
How did you start writing about food: When I transferred high schools I would take the bus from East L.A. to Alhambra. To pass time during my commute, I would read the LA Weekly to find punk shows; that’s when I first came across his restaurant reviews. I thought his writing was really cool, and he’d even drop some Ramones references from time to time. I started to think that maybe it was something I’d want to do. Jonathan would write about places down the street from my high school; they were affordable, so I’d go and try his recs.
What helped build your reputation: I was mentioned in an L.A. Times story that profiled several food bloggers. At the time, I was 16 years old, which is why I was called the Teenage Glutster. To my surprise, I was also featured in Dana Goodyear’s book Anything That Moves in a chapter about Jonathan Gold. That was a true honor.
Scouting tactics: There’s a lot of places that sound good on paper and have a good story to spin; but being a scout means you’re carrying Jonathan Gold’s legacy on your back, so you have to be selective and cutthroat. A place could be good, but does it have that special quality? Someone is probably going to write about it and get the credit, but it’s not always JGold worthy. To learn more, I’d take long walks and collect take-out menus to study. I stuffed two entire drunk drawers full of them. Sometimes all it takes is curiosity, or asking people simple questions. One time I was in East L.A. and I was craving Thai. I didn’t have a car so I went to the local spot, which is pretty awful. I ordered take-out, and while I was waiting I asked the server where he goes to eat. He told me about this place in the SF Valley called In-Chan. It had just opened and was run by the chef from Thai BBQ on Santa Monica. It was a blessing in disguise.
Memorable JGold interaction: I once asked him what’s the dark side of being a food writer, and he said for every good meal, you’re going to eat at least 10 bad ones. It allows me to stay optimistic.
Area of expertise: Korean
Geographical target(s): Koreatown, San Fernando Valley
How did you start writing about food: Being a JGold scout was actually my first food-related gig. I’m a novelist (and also write book reviews for the Times), so I’m not really a food writer in the traditional sense. I know the other scouts have cool food blogs, but not me. I’m Yelp Elite, which means I’ve written a psychotic amount of Yelp reviews (currently it’s 2,223). The crazy thing about Jonathan, though, is that he finds out about stuff on Yelp that’s not popular; I have no idea what his secret is.
What helped build your reputation: One year Jonathan judged a Korean BBQ festival. I was a huge fan of his, so I went up to him afterwards and introduced myself. There was a Korean restaurant that I loved that he hadn’t reviewed yet, so I told him to go try the raw marinated crab at Soban. He eventually went and liked it so much that he reviewed it (and even gave me a shout out in his write-up). Also, before he left the LA Weekly, he compiled this huge feature called “60 Korean Dishes Every Angeleno Should Know.” He found me on Twitter and asked if I had other tips for him.
On being asked to become a scout: In 2013 I ran into him again at the L.A. Times Book Festival, where I was invited to speak. He asked me if I’d be interested in reporting for him. It seemed random because I’m not an established food writer, but I thought, “This is fucking cool.” Now, on occasion, he’ll even like some of my Facebook posts and I’m still, like, “whoa.”
Scouting tactics: It’s all touch and go for me. I’ll look for new stuff on Yelp, but it’s still hard to tell what will be good. But one advantage is that Korean people find out about other Korean people faster, which applies to the restaurant world. My mom has even tipped me off about certain restaurant developments.
Memorable JGold interactions: Before I was officially recruited, there was a long period of time where I’d see him out in the world. One time I went up to say hi to him at Short Order, and I was really awkward and sort of interrupted his dinner with his family. The next time I saw him was at Bestia. He was on his way in, I was leaving, so I thought it’d be a reasonable time to say hi. He said hi back, but I got the sense that he didn’t remember me. Then a few seconds later, he asked about something he said he’d seen in my Twitter feed. I looked for that tweet when I got home but couldn’t find it. I think he was very kindly throwing me a bone.