July 12, 2007
Jonathan Gold: Mining L.A.‘s eclectic eateries
"The plov is great."
Jonathan Gold, the LA Weekly's restaurant critic and the 2007 winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Criticism, e-mailed me the above about Uzbekistan (the restaurant on La Brea, not the country), where we were planning to meet.
He assumed, of course, that I knew what plov is -- I didn't then, but I do now; it's a rice dish, like pilaf, usually made with lamb and cooked in a pot. It's common in Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, but not in Los Angeles. Gold has described it as "the grandfather of all pilafs, dense and slightly oily, more like dried rice than ordinary pilaf, spiked with long-cooked carrots and crisp-edged chunks of lamb, flavored with a peculiar brand of Uzbek cumin seed that is halfway between cumin and caraway."
The Pulitzer judges noted Gold's knowledge of and enthusiasm for dishes that might seem obscure, praising his "zestful, wide-ranging restaurant reviews, which express the delight of an erudite eater." He is the first food critic to be awarded a Pulitzer, and his was the first won by the LA Weekly, an alternative newspaper edited by Laurie Ochoa, who is also Gold's wife. That must have been a good week in their home.
Gold has been writing about food for more than two decades -- his column, "Counter Intelligence," began appearing in the LA Weekly in 1986, moved to the Los Angeles Times in the early 1990s and then returned to the Weekly. (When I first moved to L.A. more than a decade ago, I was given two essential items: a Thomas guide and a copy of his book, "Counter Intelligence.") He has single-handedly expanded where and what Los Angelenos will eat -- educating our palates about food high and low, dear and cheap, comforting and downright scary.
Jonathan Gold's writing brims with wit and flair and is fun to read, whether you ever eat a dish he describes or not. He is the Walt Whitman of L.A. food: His reviews contain the multitudes of our cuisines; he is our West Coast Calvin Trillin, intrepid in his exploration and reportage; an S.J. Perelman of food writing, threading his work with pop culture references that crackle with gusto.
Gold describes himself as "an L.A. guy through and through."
As we ripped into some Uzbek bread, which resembled a bialy the size of a plate, Gold recounted that until his family moved to the Westside when he was 10, he lived south of Baldwin Hills.
"My dad loved to eat," Gold recalled, saying that his parents "went to every restaurant," including such long-forgotten haunts as Edna Earle's Fog Cutter Restaurant on La Brea and Perino's on Wilshire. Their shul was Wilshire Boulevard Temple, and in keeping with reform tradition, Sunday nights were reserved for Chinese food. "Our local was Café de Chine on Fairfax" and, after that closed, Twin Dragon on Pico. "When I was in sixth grade, I won all kinds of contests for writing poems about food." Given that Gold's work was once posted on the bulletin board at Culver Elementary, you could say the writing was already on the wall, but early on it was music, not food, that drove Gold.
Gold studied composition and conducting at UCLA. He played the cello. However, when, as he puts it, "adolescence hit late and it hit hard," Gold became obsessed with punk rock. He began spending his time in bands, going to clubs -- for a while he even ran the Anti-Club in Hollywood (which the LA Weekly listed in its 20th anniversary issue as one of their readers' top 20 L.A. clubs of the last decades).
One benefit of the musician's schedule (sound check at 6 p.m., on stage at 11) was that there was always loads of time to kill, and Gold spent it going to restaurants.
In his senior year in high school, he had a girlfriend whose mother was a physics professor and, in his estimation, "a fantastic, fantastic, Chinese cook." He arranged to have dinner at their house as often as possible. He began exploring new places in Chinatown and Monterey Park. "It was just incredible, the freshness of the food," he recalls. "You could go to the same place 30 times in a row and never get the same dish."
He became obsessive in his eating habits. "As a lark, when I was 20, I decided to eat at every restaurant on Pico Boulevard." Nonetheless, he says he still "never thought of myself as a food person."
Gold supported himself by proofreading, working first at a law firm in Century City and then at the LA Weekly, but he still thought of himself as a music person. When he first wrote for the Weekly it was about opera and classical music.
One day, however, Jay Levin, then the Weekly's editor, asked Gold if he wanted to edit the biannual restaurant issue. "I turned out to be good at it," Gold said.
Nonetheless, Gold continued to write about music -- for Rolling Stone, Spin, Vanity Fair and Details (where he was a contributing editor). During the 1990s, he got to spend time with Nirvana but was often the go-to-guy for pieces on West Coast rap, writing about NWA , Eazy E, Dr. Dre, Ice Cube, and Young MC.
At one point, Gold spent so much time around Snoop Dog that he "felt like Boswell to his Dr. Johnson." Would that have made him the Dizzle to Fo Shizzle?
Gold also wrote about heavy metal for the L.A. Times. However, late one night in the 1990s, when the lead singer of a band told Gold that he'd passed on going to Columbia to move to New York's Chinatown to pursue his rock-and-roll dreams, Gold's reaction was, "Your poor parents!" He knew then it was "time to stop writing about bands." Besides, by then Gold was in demand as a food writer.
Over the years, Gold has written about food for California magazine (under the legendary Harold Hayes), the L.A. Times and Gourmet (both under Ruth Reichl). Despite a brief sojourn in New York for Gourmet, Gold has lived (and fressed) in Los Angeles for most his life, which puts Gold in a great position to discuss how the restaurant scene in Los Angeles became so vibrant, particularly as regards ethnic food.
Gold attributes great importance to the 1984 L.A. Olympics. "There was a sense around the time of the Olympics in 1984 that suddenly Los Angeles was this international city," he says. "I don't think anyone had thought of it that way before."