[Read Gaetano Kazuo Maida’s review here.]
There aren’t very many of us who actually have worked as food critics for print publications. I did it for 15 years at the San Francisco Chronicle and for about 15 more at the San Francisco Examiner. Way back when I started, no editorial wall stood between advertising and criticism, at least when it came to restaurants. If a restaurant advertised, it got written up.
To the Chronicle’s credit, it changed its policy shortly before I was hired, but it left me to make up the rules about fairness (number of visits, anonymity, paying for everything) and conflict of interest; I happened to co-own and cook at a restaurant in San Francisco.
I believed at the time, and actually still do, that the deliciousness of the food was the only consideration. It didn’t matter whether I ate off a paper plate on the sidewalk, or on china in a white-tableclothed dining room with regiments of service. If the food didn’t make me want to return to eat more I tried not to write about the restaurant. My personal mission, really my passion, was to turn on readers to the sensual joy of tastiness and to expand their consciousness about what “tasty” might be. I wanted my readers to try new dishes and cuisines, food they had never imagined – which is why I am so fond of City of Gold. Watching this new documentary, which follows Jonathan Gold, the Pulitzer Prize-winning restaurant critic from the LA Weekly and now the Los Angeles Times, on his eating rounds made me ravenous.
From the opening shots of soft little tacos, doubled up and piled with brilliantly colorful fillings from the Guerilla Taco truck to the fiery Thai stews at Jitlada, the jet black mole at La Tia, the tables full of pickles and fermented foods in Koreatown and the multiregional Chinese treasures in Alhambra in the San Gabriel Valley, I was itching to hop on a plane to Burbank. I wanted to troll the long, ever- transitioning Los Angeles boulevards for culinary treasures. City of Gold stirs up a yearning for the city itself along with its food. The soft-spoken Gold, whose scraggly red hair, belt-defying belly (he convincingly wears suspenders) and writer’s gait make him an improbable movie star, is so charming, sweet, witty and observant you’re seduced. You just want to hop in his green pickup truck and be taken along to eat.
In one scene, he procrastinates at his computer – how well I know this part of the story – and he reads us the lede he’s working on. It’s good. Movie star allure lurks in his writing. Gold studied music at UCLA and began his writing career as the music editor at the LA Weekly. Is it just co-incidence that an original, insinuating score by Bobby Johnston for City of Gold feels so right?
In the mid-’80s he started his Counter Intelligence column for the Weekly, which took him to Los Angeles’ many underexplored ethnic neighborhoods. He had trained for the assignment by trying every restaurant along the 15.5-mile length of Pico Boulevard, from the Pacific to downtown Los Angeles, an intrepid journey of culinary mapping. Along the way he became a connoisseur of urban life, finding the most exciting dishes in the interstices between neighborhoods.
As a reviewer he returned again and again to the places he loved, eating there five or six times. (He says his record is 17.) He never takes notes – “Would you take notes while having sex?” Every critic, he tells us, is ultimately recognized, no matter what they do to avoid being known. I agree with him on this. And I suppose that’s one reason why he agreed to make the film; that, and his romance with the ethnic – the “other” eating experience that he wants everyone to embrace.
The biggest change in food consciousness in America over the 30 years Gold has been writing is a consequence of cultural diversity. Not only have baby boomer Americans traveled everywhere, but so many people from all over the world have come to us — especially since the 1965 Hart-Celler Act, which opened up quotas and expanded immigration. Gold’s empathy for all the cooks, workers and eaters in these transplanted communities is what drove his career and this movie. He is fascinated by the reinvention of culinary culture in the new geography, climate and food supply of his city. This film will give Gold and his beloved moles, tacos, spicy BBQ, dumplings, noodles and bibimbap the audience they deserve.
Director Laura Gabbert and Jonathan Gold will do Q&As at the Landmark Embarcadero Theatre (in Embarcadero Center, San Francisco) on Friday and Saturday, March 25 and 26 at 7:05 PM and at the Smith Rafael (1001 Lootens Place in San Rafael) on Saturday, March 26 at 4:15.