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When the legendary food writer and restaurant critic Jonathan Gold started out 25 years ago, the food map of Los Angeles—indeed, the mental map of the city for anyone who didn’t actually live in an outlying neighborhood—formed a narrow crescent on the Westside, from Santa Monica to downtown. Gold changed all that, writing about hand-cut Shanxi noodles in the outer reaches of the San Gabriel Valley and a dish of curried chopped goat’s brains served in a mini-mall south of the airport. He likes to reminisce that when he was writing for the Los Angeles Times in the early-to-mid-1990s, “There was a joke in the newsroom that there were huge parts of the city that would only make it into the paper if there was a gang killing—or if I found some place to eat.”
The first food writer to win a Pulitzer Prize, Gold now writes for the LA Weekly, a free, independent paper; he also spent two years at the turn of the millennium in New York as the restaurant critic for Gourmet. In his hands, the job of the restaurant critic consists of equal parts urban exploration and anthropology, and as a result, his writing not only serves as a guide to Los Angeles’ truly great, if somewhat obscure, edible experiences, but also redefines the city’s identity and geography.
Gold’s success hinges on obsessive research, rigorous eating, and prose that is simultaneously sensuous and chatty. He tries to drive down all the major thoroughfares in L.A. County at least once every six months—no mean feat in an urban area that sprawls over 4,000 square miles—so that he can spot new businesses opening as communities migrate. He reads everything—newspapers, blogs, and even phone books—and relies heavily on Google Translate. As is common among decent critics, Gold eats in restaurants at least three times before writing a review—but he will also eat at every restaurant in a particular mall or on a particular street, in the hope of discovering a hidden gem. In his reviews, he writes about eating as a cultural and a sensory experience. In other words, he will spend as much time reflecting on the teenage rite of passage that is working at a Hot Dog on a Stick stand as he devotes to the crispy, slightly gritty batter and rubbery turkey dog itself.
Most importantly, Gold has found a way, through food, to make sense of the city. He has revealed the culinary benefits in our fragmentation and sprawl. He has given us reason to be proud of the city’s “insular regionality” (his term), which results in restaurants run by Filipinos from a particular island that only Filipinos from that island go to. And, slowly but surely, his middle-class Westside-based readers have followed in his footsteps, venturing out of “their” Los Angeles to discover a foreign city where one could live and die without speaking a word of English—and eat damned well.
Portrait by Michael Gaughan