If there was a Big Bang moment in Los Angeles’ greater food consciousness, few would argue that it coincided with the arrival of Jonathan Gold, the omnivorous Patron Saint of Strip Malls who built a reputation for celebrating the city’s ethnic culinary pockets.
Gold’s tastes steered Angelenos in a new direction—unapologetically more interested in Beverly Soon Tofu than the second-tier steakhouses of Beverly Hills. If his approach to criticism is offbeat, so are his musings. He once equated a well-cooked potato to an aria. He has pondered why the taco, as an object, honors the truck so much. He has entertained the perverse pleasures of hagfish, a vile eel-type sea creature that is coated in slime. He has also complimented Koreans for bringing an “unabashed innard love” that was at one point non-existent here. “He’s not a thumbs-up, thumbs-down kind of writer,” says Laura Gabbert, who spent months trailing L.A.’s most over-worked digestive system for her documentary, City of Gold.
When you’re talking about the L.A. Times food critic, you’re invariably entering into a broader discussion about L.A. culture at large. The theme of Gold as an anthropologist has been touched on before, but it was given a feature-length treatment in Gabbert’s film, which chronicled the food critic as he drove around in his green pick-up truck, scouting restaurants, writing, and procrastinating with all his might. While Gold shed light on places that existed on the margins, the documentary also revealed the power of his reviews to help people shape their own stories. It wasn’t until Gold praised Oaxacan restaurant Guelaguetza that co-owner Bricia Lopez allowed herself to fully embrace the richness of her culture; it wasn’t until Gold championed Korean tacos that Roy Choi realized the potential of his Kogi fleet to be a type of culinary Justice League.
In his storytelling, Gold was unafraid to cross over into pop-culture. His descriptions of carnitas that were “loose and juicy, spilling out of the huge $1.99 tacos like Beyoncé out of a tight jumpsuit” point to someone whose interests extend beyond the persnickety world of food. There was a period in his life when Gold spent more time with rappers than his family, as evidenced by his 1989 cover story for the L.A. Weekly. He has cited a Germs concert at the Whiskey a Go Go as an awakening.
To read Gold’s words in Los Angeles is tantamount to Sunday morning Eucharist. To speak to him, though, is a rare chance to move beyond the page. We caught up with the don of L.A. restaurant criticism to chat about everything from how food media has evolved (too many people competing to cover the opening of a Shake Shack), to the pain of trying to track down Eazy-E with a cell phone. In Gold’s world, those subjects aren’t so distant, after all.
I was wondering if you could tell me a little bit about the philosophy behind your criticism. Unlike others, you don’t really set to tear people down or lampoon them in public.
I don’t know if I can boil it down to 30 words, but I try to understand what the chefs have in mind, what they are trying to do, what’s the aesthetic effect, and how well they pull it off in their own terms. Sometimes what they are pulling off isn’t all that interesting, so I don’t tend to write about those places that often.
Right. But there are other critics out there who would see that as a chance to flex, if you will. It doesn’t seem like you have that impulse to attack.
Or if I did, I got rid of it when I was in my 20s. I mean, in London, criticism is a bloodsport. Sometimes you think that people like Jay Rayner choose restaurants by how bad they are and how vicious they could be in the takedown. So much of the time they are doing that, they are writing about completely irrelevant restaurants. I always try to do restaurants that are culturally relevant. I spend so much time figuring out what I want to review. It’s true that I’m very unlikely to review the 12th-best pseudo-Tuscan restaurant in Brentwood. I’m just not that interested in very expensive hotel restaurants in Beverly Hills or that kind of thing.
That’s like low-hanging fruit?
Right. It’s easy to write negative reviews. It’s fun, it’s funny, the readers love it, but it’s not helpful. It’s not telling people where to go because they probably weren’t going to go there anyway. It’s not moving the conversation forward. Which isn’t to say I won’t do it. I wrote a review for the Weekly when Gordon Ramsay’s restaurant, The London, opened that was so mean that it was actually quoted in the Independent in London for being the first negative review in the history of his restaurants. But at a certain point when you are a critic, you can close down a restaurant in a way that you almost can’t do in any other field. If a newspaper critic writes a [negative] review of the new Batman movie, I’m sure Warner Bros. doesn’t weep. There was a time when I reviewed a New York restaurant called Atlas for Gourmet; I was gleeful in destroying it. The critic at the New York Times, William Grimes, practically named it his restaurant of the year. To me, it wasn’t just bad—it was bad in an evil way. There was a soup that…the question wasn’t whether it tasted like cough medicine, but whether it tasted like Robitussin or something off-brand that you would buy at Duane Reade.
What has surprised you about the way the food media landscape has changed in the past 10 years?
For so long when I was in L.A., I was the critic for both LA Weekly and Los Angeles Magazine. There was a critic at the Times. That was kind of it. Now in L.A. there’s probably 40 people who make a living writing about restaurants. In New York, it’s probably twice that. I love the quantity of voices. I love that you have people from specific backgrounds writing about food from a place of knowledge. Exposing those voices is great. But the sheer quantity can also be toxic. For example, suddenly a new branch of Shake Shack comes up and 45 people want to write about it. Because 45 people want to write about it, they all vie to be on the correct side of the publicist. Because they vie to be on the correct side of the publicist, everything is getting spun in a certain way. There’s currency to stuff that there maybe shouldn’t be currency in.
To me, especially coming from writing about music where I did a cover story on Snoop and Dre for Rolling Stone in ’93 or ’94, I actually clocked it and it was something like 1,150 phone calls involved in setting up everything. You know what? If I want to review a restaurant I don’t have to fucking call anyone. I can get my own seat at the table. I don’t have to ask anyone questions because it’s right there on the plate. There’s something beautiful and unmediated about that this type of writing.
We interview rappers all the time. It can be a task to get ahold of them.
I got a cell phone specifically so that Eazy-E could call me when he wanted to. [Laughs] You think that’s a small thing? In 1989, it wasn’t. The phones weren’t small either. They were the size of typewriters.
While on the topic of hip-hop, I know in the movie you say how The Chronic became this crossover album, and was essentially the anthem of backyard barbecues across L.A. Did you ever go to barbecues with Snoop or Dre?
Yeah. I went to Dre’s house for parties a couple of times. I think I was there [at the park] when they filmed the “Let Me Ride” video. I got to know everybody in the posse. The ministers, the brothers, the sisters, the girls hanging on—the whole thing was this running party going on for years. I remember they were at the studio in the Valley where Tupac did most of this stuff. Snoop knew one of the Mary Jane girls. She sang backup for Rick James. She did barbecue in the backyard and she was really good at it. There was some good chicken going down.
Is Snoop someone you will still occasionally run into?
There were a couple of years when I spent more time with Snoop than I did with my family probably. I was with him almost everyday. But I haven’t run into him for a long time. You have to pretty actively want to be in that scene to be in that scene. I just got tired of writing stories that included the line, “surrendered to police.” That’s not what I was in it for.
Last thing: You seem like the type of guy who likes to be stumped. You like to explore the nervous system of the octopus, or continue to eat a Taiwanese dish that confounds you. What stumps you right now?
Maybe Xi’an noodles. There’s a ton of it. It’s amazing what the waves of emigration from China to L.A., but there seems to be a ton of people from the way north, and their noodle traditions and the aesthetics of it are not the ones we are used to. They are easy to eat because it’s slippery textures, but there’s always chile, vinegar, and soy. Places that seem familiar, but the food is coming from a different place. I’m not quite understanding that as perfectly as I might. [From an e-mail a week after our conversation: “I think I understand it better now— and most of the food at Xi’an Famous in NYC isn’t even close—but it took a minute.”]