[Read Patricia Unterman’s review here.]
Actress Mindy Kaling (The Office) once famously tweeted: “One slice of pizza in the Hollywood area? Don’t Jonathan Gold me and tell me to go to the San Gabriel Valley goddammit ….”
If there was ever any doubt about the U.S. being a land of immigrants, a polyglot of disparate peoples continuously arriving and morphing here, L.A. put that to rest. The City of Angels is a vast and diverse sprawl of hundreds of discrete communities whose borders are indistinct to the casual observer. Jonathan Gold is no casual observer, and he uses food as his door into the many cultures of Los Angeles, his hometown, and maps a geography that few will be able to experience as fully.
Filmmaker Laura Gabbert (No Impact Man) has said she learned to love L.A. by reading Gold, and her City of Gold is an affectionate portrait of this affable denizen of the nation’s second-largest metropolis. In his green Dodge pickup truck, wild, thinning hair and comfortable girth, he is an unmistakable presence wherever he goes, eschewing the tradition of anonymity of most other restaurant critics. The film genially takes us along for drives (and L.A. is all about the driving) as he seeks out yet another discovery or visits favorites; he will often try a place five or more times before a review.
From food trucks and carts to cafes hidden in mini-malls, we get a glimpse of the range of cuisines and cultures on offer (best not to watch on an empty stomach). He clearly enjoys his work and he is much appreciated by the many small restaurants he’s reviewed for the Los Angeles Times (and before that the LA Weekly) and championed to their benefit. And he’s no slouch: despite intimations of writer’s block and missed deadlines, he somehow produces 150,000 words a year. He is the only recipient of a Pulitzer Prize for food criticism.
It wasn’t always thus: previously a music critic, coming from the world of classical music and then punk rock (he played cello in a band called Overman), he once set himself the task of exploring every eatery along the 15 miles of Pico Boulevard that cuts east/west through L.A., from downtown to the beach at Santa Monica. In the course of that (performance piece?), he learned everything he needed to know about the cuisines and subcultures of Central America, and found his true calling.
Gold is doing for Los Angeles what Milton Glaser did in New York Magazine (which he founded in 1967) in the pioneering review column, The Underground Gourmet (with Jerome Snyder). Instead of a pickup truck, Glaser rode a taxi if in Manhattan and the subway if in the outer boroughs – and it was often a team sport, with friends tagging along – but the same sense that there was an extraordinary opportunity to chronicle the diversity of the city through the food of casual and inexpensive ethnic cafes and restaurants motivated the enthusiasm.
City of Gold includes brief, almost superfluous encounters with well-known food commentators and chefs, including Calvin Trillin, Ruth Reichl, Andrew Zimmern, David Chang and Roy Choi, but this isn’t an Anthony Bourdain show or a celebrity showcase. Gold is more than a food critic; he’s something of an anthropologist and culture maven, with a conscious sense of his role. His curiosity is ultimately about people, and at one point he says, “We are all strangers together.” The film could easily be the pilot for a documentary series that would delve deeper into the many communities and cuisines of L.A.; with Gold as the guide, even Bay Area folks might come to love the town.
Gaetano Kazuo Maida was a founding director of the Buddhist quarterly Tricycle and currently serves as executive director of two nonprofits, Buddhist Film Foundation and Tea Arts Institute. He has been director and/or producer of a number of films and is developing a documentary series entitled Swans at the Lake—The American Story of Buddhism. A native New Yorker and long-time resident in the East Bay (a commuter with a bicoastal disorder), he had a consulting practice in Santa Monica with a partner, a restaurateur, for most of the ’90s.