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."
Gold also believes the growth of California's ethnic cuisines are directly related to the global political events of the 1980s and 1990s: the wars in Central America which led substantial numbers of El Salvadorans, Ecuadorians, Hondurans, Guatemalans and Nicaraguans to make Los Angeles home; the fall of the shah in Iran, which led to the establishment of the Persian community here; and the concerns over Hong Kong coming under mainland control, which spurred a new wave of emigration. Each new community brought its cooking with it, and new restaurants began to bloom.
At the same time, Los Angeles' Mexican restaurants, many of which were run by second-generation Americans, found themselves challenged by new establishments specializing in specific regional cooking. Beyond that, Los Angeles' Armenian, Thai and Korean restaurants continued to thrive, each offering their distinctive cuisines for Gold to sample on our behalf.
However, unlike other American cites, Los Angeles is so spread out and the communities are so insular that restaurants can serve the food of a particular region, or a particular city, for an audience that is almost entirely their own and never even have an English language menu.
"In L.A.'s Koreatown," Gold gave as an example, a Korean restaurant "may never see a non-Korean customer."
How, you may wonder, can Gold even write about these various cuisines with any authority?
"I do my homework," he said. He owns more than 3,000 cookbooks, and he reads them. "By the time I write about a cuisine, I will have read most of what there is to read about it in English," he said.
"I don't go to a restaurant once, I go many times." The anecdote, which he has told several times since winning the Pulitzer, is of the Taiwanese restaurant that he hated, whose dishes he found repulsive, but that he kept going back to because he knew, in his words, that there was "intelligence at work in the kitchen."
As for his writing, Gold says: "Something that I've worked really, really hard at over the years [is] to be able to describe a dish [in a way] that makes you able to taste it."
Here's his description of the house-special crab at Macau Street restaurant in Monterey Park: "a plump, honestly sized crustacean dipped in thin batter, dusted with spices and fried to a glorious crackle, a pile of salty dismembered parts sprinkled with a handful of pulverized fried garlic and just enough chili slices to set your mouth aglow." Hungry yet? I'm willing to bet that even if you keep kosher, and never have and never will taste crab, you know what he means.
Gold also enjoys working pop culture references into his reviews "because food isn't the only world, it's part of the world, and I think one of the most important things is to put it into perspective. When I write about a place, I try almost every time ... to show where it might fit into your life."
Here's a recent example, from a review of A-Won restaurant in his recent "99 essential L.A. restaurants": "Good hwe dup bap -- and A-won's is very good -- is as alive and vivid and evanescent as a wildflower, the taste of the spring's first asparagus, or the throwaway line in a Lilly Allen song that breaks your heart."
Makes you wonder: Who's iPod is he playing?
Midway into our meal, we had done justice to the samsa, a puff pastry with ground meat -- sort of a meat patty on steroids -- that Gold judged to be "the bomb"; paid homage to the chuchvara, fried meat dumplings; had a degustation of an assortment of Tashkent-style salads; and had started to tuck into the plov.
As Gold remarked: "It's a grand thing to be a restaurant critic in the age of lipitor."
Gold is tall, with rock-and-roll long hair that was once blond (he could pass for the manager of the band in "Spinal Tap") -- and although he works out regularly, he would not be mistaken for an ironman competitor. Still, as he noted, given that his cholesterol is lower than it's ever been, "I'm still a fat guy. But I'm a healthier fat guy."
The Pulitzer was "completely unexpected," Gold says. "The Pulitzer traditionally goes to architecture writers and classical musical writers -- you know: grown-ups." He is particularly happy for the recognition it brings to the Weekly. "My wife is the editor-in-chief and she works so hard, she puts out such great work.... It's not like the family tailor shop, but it's mostly like the family tailor shop."
Asked to assess his contribution to Los Angeles, Gold says, "If I've done one thing in my 25 years, I hope I've let Angelenos know to not be quite so afraid of their neighborhoods -- that you can drive to Bell Gardens and have a great meal and a great experience."
You might think that a meal with Gold is an exercise in excess or a CSI-type analysis of trace elements. But to the contrary, Gold is affable, friendly, relaxed. At lunch, he is not so much a food critic, as a restaurant enthusiast -- he's just happy to be eating.
I asked Gold how he maintains his enthusiasm, given how long he's been reviewing restaurants. "It's strange," he admitted. "I still get excited every time I go into a new restaurant. I keep hoping that I'm going to have something that blows me away. Like today with this plov...." Gold's face lit up:
"The plov," he said, "is so good, really good."
Zócalo will feature Jonathan Gold at the L.A. Central Library on Monday, July 16 at 7 p.m.
Tom Teicholz is a film producer in Los Angeles. Everywhere else, he's an author and journalist who has written for The New York Times Sunday Magazine, Interview and The Forward. His column appears every other week.