July 12, 2007
Jonathan Gold: Mining L.A.‘s eclectic eateries
(Page 2 - Previous Page)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.
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