warning Hi, we've moved to USCANNENBERGMEDIA.COM. Visit us there!

Neon Tommy - Annenberg digital news

The Word of Gold

Gracie Zheng |
May 2, 2013 | 12:10 a.m. PDT

Senior Staff Reporter

This story is a collaboration between Neon Tommy and L.A. Currents.

Assessing the role Pulitzer Prize-winning food critic Jonathan Gold played in the rise of the contemporary

(Photo by Anne Fishbein)
(Photo by Anne Fishbein)
"foodie” culture is tricky. If, in certain quarters, food and dining have been elevated to an unreasonably high social plane, we can’t help but turn our gaze toward the messengers. And there is no messenger more famous than Gold, whose followers hang on his every (written) word as if he had just rappelled down Mt. Sinai. The man — much like the exotic dishes that fill his copy — has been fetishized by his hardcore fan base, and it is hard to think of a more influential Los Angeles writer working today. But the persona that emerges from Gold’s writing stands in stark contrast to the stereotype of the culinary BoBos that inhabit places like Boerum Hill and Abbott Kinney. You get the sense that Gold finds greater comfort in wolfing down street tacos in Pico-Union or a bowl of pho at a strip mall in Rosemead than selecting the best wine to pair with the wagyu beef tartare at Melisse.

Take the opening line of his review of El Taurino:

“In tacos, as in sex, timing is everything. If you’ve ever eaten street food in Mexico, you’ll know what I mean.”

Or his stage setting for the meal he reviewed at The Pines:

“To get to The Pines, you speed down the Pearblossom Highway from Palmdale, through a landscape of dirt, Joshua trees, and squeaky-new housing tracts, past dozens of billboards advertising master-planned communities, toward low, red buttes that thrust into the teal sky. It used to be in the middle of nowhere; now Pines is in the middle of nowhere special.”

We sat down with L.A.’s most famous human decoder ring, the man who unlocks the secrets of the far-flung reaches of the city, to talk about the state of restaurants in L.A. in 2013.


L.A. Currents: When you started out, you famously tried every restaurant on Pico Boulevard. If you were to try that concept again, which boulevard would you select and why?

Jonathan Gold: I was thinking of doing Pico again. I have a book proposal to do it. I didn’t do [Pico] for an assignment. I did that when I was in college and it was just something to do. I only wrote about it and did the radio things about it long [afterward].

I think Sherman Way in North Hollywood is a great one because of the ethnic variety. I hate the word “ethnic” because we’re all ethnic. French restaurants are ethnic restaurants. Greasy spoon diners are ethnic restaurants. But nobody talks about them as ethnic because the ethnicity is white, right? If you go along a few miles of Sherman Way . . . every mall will have a Thai restaurant, it will have a Latin American restaurant of some kind, which could be Peruvian or Ecuadorean or Mexican or Salvadoran. It will have Middle Eastern or Armenian restaurants of some sort. They’re scattered in there, pockets of Filipino stuff. Just the variety of that street is astonishing. Pico is astonishing too. But it moves more from Central American to Mexican (mostly Oaxacan), to Korean, to Persian kosher, with a big Koreatown scattered in there. It’s an interesting street and it’s always changing. It’s an area that new immigrants to the United States will always move to. The houses there are nice and cheap.

LAC: Since you started writing the Counter Intelligence column in the late 1980s, how has your reviewing process changed? Do your reviews still require as much prep work?

Gold: Yeah, I still do a lot of studying. When I first started doing this in the ’80s and ’90s, there were some dishes I described that were the first time anybody had described them in English. That doesn’t happen as much anymore. Even food from different, really specific regions — you can go on Wikipedia or the Internet, you can find out everybody’s 10 favorite dishes from any region. That didn’t use to happen.

LAC: Recently you wrote about a Chinese restaurant, Hunan Mao, in which you ate a fish head. As far as I know, not many Americans like to eat fish heads.

Gold: A lot of my readers won’t eat fish heads. But I think a lot of the readers will. . . . They want to taste what the real food is. I like to think that my column may be a way in for that. [Readers] will bring in my column, and they’ll point at the dishes I had. The people at the restaurant [say], “Oh, that’s what you want.” Then they bring in the fish head. It’s delicious, right?

LAC: Do you feel like you’re improving as a food critic, or after all these years, do you run the risk of burning out?

Gold: Critics often burn out. I started to feel, towards the end of my time at Gourmet magazine (when I was a New York City critic there), that I was burning out a little bit because I got really, really tired of describing food for rich people. It was interesting, and a lot was extremely well-cooked. But it wasn’t feeding anybody’s specific hunger. It was food for novelty’s sake. I like the food that people eat. I think I’m getting better. I read my stuff even from three or four years ago. I know more; I’m more experienced. I figured out how to write about food better and put it in context better. I’m definitely a better critic than I was on my own in my 20s and my 40s.

LAC: In 1999, you left Los Angeles for New York and worked briefly as a food critic for Gourmet magazine. How do you compare Asian food on the West Coast to that of the East Coast?

Gold: The Asian food on the West Coast is much better. I have a lot of theories why that is. One is because of sheer numbers — there are more [Asians] here. The other thing is in New York, the people who own a Korean restaurant or a restaurant serving Dongbei food, they have to be aware of people coming in who are not Korean or who are not familiar with northern Chinese food. They are always trying to predict what people outside their group are going to think of their food. I think in Los Angeles, the communities are big enough and inward-looking enough that I don’t think they care. The San Gabriel Valley, for example — I think it’s interesting that when people are dumbing down food to cater to a specific taste, it’s not that “white American” taste. It’s that sort of Hong Kong taste that has this horror of hot chilis and of certain textures.

LAC: It’s been written that you have driven thousands of miles a year to test out all the different types of cuisines. Are you still traveling as much as you did in the 1990s?

Gold: Not quite as much, but I still do a lot, just because so many of the places I have to write about (now that I’m at the L.A. Times), are more mainstream. I’m writing about twice as many mainstream restaurants as I was before.

LAC: Do you get a sense the ethnic restaurants are as spread out as before, or are they more concentrated in certain areas?

Gold: They’re still spread out, but there are obvious concentrations. There is this Rowland Heights concentration. There is a concentration around the span of Valley Boulevard. You’re seeing that Rosemead is becoming more and more Vietnamese, I think. The east National group is centralized among itself, but the whole dispersion of it is pretty (wide).

LAC: You once told Believer magazine, “The fact is most Chinese have really bad taste in Chinese food.” What’s up with that?

Gold: There is this sort of ingrained rule that “Oh yeah, we’ll go here because it’s all Chinese people here,” right? Sometimes the Chinese people will be like, “That’s really great.” Sometimes it will be crowded because it’s 50 cents cheaper. If you’re in the culture, you read the papers and you have the conversations, you do all the stuff that somebody who is Chinese would do, [you] know all this. For someone who doesn’t know, they just see the big line and they wait. They have lunch at a place that’s not that good just because there is a giant line in front of it. It could be because it’s cheaper, but it’s already pretty cheap. So if you’re driving 30 miles to go to a restaurant, you might want to go to the better one rather than the cheaper one.

But it’s also true that within a group, just because you were born Chinese or you were born French, it doesn’t give you automatic superpowers on knowing what the best food is. I’m not saying everybody thinks they [know]. Some people do, mostly Taiwanese [laughs].

LAC: How do you think L.A.’s relationship with Asian restaurants and Chinese restaurants in particular have changed?

Gold: I was the first person who really started writing about the food in the San Gabriel Valley. Now, if you’re a visiting food person or even a visiting tourist, you know that’s where you go. I get 20 letters a week that ask, “Where is the great Chinese food on the Westside?” “Sorry, you got to get in the car.” I think everyone knows they’ll have to drive to the SGV. Maybe they’re just going out for basic dim sum or a bowl of mian. At least they know it’s there. At least they know there is a variety; it’s not just Chinese. Koreatown is incredibly centrally located, but Korean cuisine is incredibly hard to access for people who don’t speak Korean and who don’t know Korean culture.

It’s really fun to go in and find out what the specialties are. Almost every restaurant will have just one or two things they’re famous for, and the rest just fills out the menu. If [you’re] going to a restaurant that specializes in a specific kind of spicy braised codfish, don’t go in there and ask for barbecue. They will serve it to you, but that’s not why you’re going there. I think people are [realizing that].

If I’ve done anything over the years, it’s trying to get people to live in the whole city rather than just their little part of it.

LAC: Which region of China is best represented in L.A.’s food scene?

Gold: I don’t know. We had huge immigration here from Hong Kong right before 1999. A lot of those people moved back, the businessmen especially, and the chefs are moving back as they’re making more money, which I think is the only time in American history that Chinese chefs have moved from the United States to China to make more money.

Really good Chinese food costs, especially for the places that go the lengths to get special ingredients. Sometimes the cooking times are long, and it’s very labor-intensive. It's expensive to produce great Chinese food. People here sometimes have the idea that Chinese food should be cheap. Maybe it’s too cheap. You go to the farm, you go to the slaughterhouse, it’s not like they say, “Oh, you’re Chinese, we will give it to you for 50 percent cheaper.”

A lot of the most expensive things that Chinese restaurants serve [are] the state ingredients [ingredients reserved for Communist party members] that I don’t care for. I don’t care about shark fins. I don’t care about birds’ nests. I don’t care about whether it’s AAA-grade sea cucumber. I’m probably not going to buy sun-dried bologna. It’s delicious, but there are better things to do with $500.

LAC: Are people still fooled into thinking certain dishes or restaurants are superior simply because of the cost?

Gold: Of course. Before I got to the Times, I was sort of involved with the anti-shark’s fin thing. I wrote some editorials for the Times and for some other places. My brother [ran] a big marine organization, an environmental group called Heal the Bay. Now he is running the environmental science institute at UCLA.

It’s sort of like the waste involved with shark’s fin. The shark’s fin doesn’t even taste like anything, right? It has a nice texture. But if it actually has a taste to it, that’s a flaw. That’s cheaper. You put in good stuff; you make it taste good. You use a great stock. You use great vegetables. You’re very skillful at cooking, you can make shark’s fin soup taste like the best thing in the world. But the shark’s fin itself is a minor part of that.

LAC: The term “Asian fusion” is a bit of fad right now. Does that frighten or excite you?

Gold: There have been various stages here. The first stage of Asian fusion, although there were a couple things before that, started in the early ’80s in Los Angeles. It started specifically with Wolfgang Puck, but with chefs with very good traditional French training. He hired chefs with traditional French training to cook Chinese food. What they were really doing was cooking European food with a few Chinese ingredients in it for flavor. That’s what fusion cooking was in the United States for a long time.

The second generation was guys like Nobu Matsuhisa. He had this sushi bar in Beverly Hills, Matsuhisa, that grew into a worldwide empire, where he basically cooked sushi and traditional Japanese izakaya food, but used some Western ingredients to sort of bridge the gap.

Then the third one, which I’m finding really exciting right now — which I think is the most interesting thing in cuisine, not just in L.A. but in the world, is U.S. chefs who were born into Asian families, who went to do the traditional Western cuisine, who went to cooking school and cooked at places like Daniel and Jean Georges, the best restaurants in the United States. Then they open their own places and start looking at the cuisine they grew up with from the perspective of somebody who has the right flavors in his head but also has all the techniques from cooking in high-end Western restaurants. I think some of that food is really exciting: the stuff of Bryant Ng at Spice Table or Kris Yenbamroong at Night+Market in West Hollywood. There are other famous ones in New York: David Chang, who does Momofuku, and Danny Bowien, who does a place called Mission Chinese. I actually don’t like Mission Chinese, but it was probably the most important restaurant last year in New York.

LAC: Does the popular use of “fusion” Asian food concern you?

Gold: No, I think it’s great. The thing that concerns me is when in the old days people would think because Los Angeles has always been so hip and multicultural, and everything is Asian, that they had to put Korean noodles on the menu or a Thai beef salad. They never actually took the trouble, not just to go to Thailand, but to drive to the restaurant three miles down the street to make a real [version of something] they learned about in a lot of books. Now if you grew up as a chef in Los Angeles, you have to know what’s around you.

I think one of the most interesting restaurants in town now is Red Medicine, which is a guy doing cross-cultural food, but he leans Vietnamese. He’s never been to Vietnam. But it doesn’t matter because he knows how the flavors work.

LAC: What international cuisine does L.A. lack?

Gold: We don’t have much in the way of Scandinavian cuisine. We could use more African restaurants. There are two or three really, really good Eastern European restaurants, but for the most part that’s something that’s not that exciting here.

Let me say it’s not that exciting in Eastern Europe either. Two years ago I went to do a piece for a travel magazine. I was in Prague for ten days. There was nothing. Every restaurant had exactly the same menu.

LAC: Are you sure you went to the right places?

Gold: Oh yeah, I’m really good at that. I finally found a couple of bars that had good sausages. I did all the stuff that I was supposed to do. I went out to the countryside; I went to talk to the butchers who made the famous sausages in the countryside. I went to farms. I went to places where all their food was from game animals that had been shot. Before communism, it was the most famous cooking in all of Europe — the cooking of the Austro-Hungarian empire, that is — and Prague was the culinary capital.

LAC: In 2009, you told The New Yorker’s Dana Goodyear that you view L.A. as “the anti-melting pot” — the home of true, undiluted, regional cooking. Is that still the case and what, if anything, might threaten that “anti-melting” pot characteristic of L.A.?

Gold: I think that’s absolutely the case. I don’t think threatening is bad. Cuisine, wherever it is in the world, it’s always changing. Wherever you are in the world, what you eat now is different from what you ate 100 years ago. Some of [the change] is caused by the ingredients but some of it is the population’s change, and immigration. Since the United States has been in a recession for the last five years, I think we’re getting less interesting immigration. Now, you’re actually having people go back because they think there are more opportunities where they came from than here. That is unprecedented in American history. Among the Chinese, you’re finding [fewer] people from southern China. But now you’re getting more people from northern China.

There are like eight or ten restaurants where you can get Dongbei food — northern Chinese food you couldn’t get before. People write [to me]: “Where do you get the best cumin lamb?” I don’t think cumin lamb is a category that even existed ten years ago.

There is a place in Koreatown, a Chinese place that has the food of Yanbian, a part of China right above North Korea where there are still a lot of Korean people living. It is exciting for us to be able to go [somewhere] that has the food of a place that ten minutes before you couldn’t even find on a map.

LAC: There have always been “food celebrities” on TV, but you have remained a writer and radio personality. Why have you avoided the spotlight and fortune TV brings?

Gold: I’m asked almost every week. The reason is — and I’m not sure if it’s right — but in the United States, there is this idea that restaurant critics are anonymous. That restaurant critics don’t go on television. They are supposed to go into restaurants and be exactly the same as anybody else.

I don’t do television. A few times I have; they sort of pixelated my face. And I looked like someone in the witness protection program. It was my idea not to include my face. So they had to find different ways to disguise it, and television producers usually don’t want to do that so much.

I’ve actually been offered permanent places on two or three of the most popular food shows now. I just can’t do it. There is a documentary being made about me that’s going to come out — maybe at Sundance next year. Maybe I will do TV after that. I only go to restaurants that I’ve written about already, so the process doesn’t get weird.

LAC: Do you think the culture of the “food celebrity” is ultimately a good thing?

Gold: I think it’s a bad thing, probably. Food television has completely warped the values of the whole generation of chefs. You talk to young men and women in culinary school. They’re not there because they want to open a restaurant or because they’re passionate about food. They’re there because they want to be on TV.

People aren’t taking restaurant work as seriously as they did before. Because of the nature of food television — it encourages novelty for the sake of novelty. Some of the foods are just inedible. It’s the most awful imaginable food. They’re doing it because they want to get attention for themselves. You get more attention for yourself by making a dish that nobody has made or thought of then you do by cooking a really good version of a classic dish.

LAC: You’ve been credited with making it hip to seek out great dining at out of the way strip malls. How do you characterize the difference between strip-mall dining and high-end dining?

Gold: Sometimes there is no [difference] at all. In New York City, the two fanciest restaurants are in the Time Warner shopping center at Columbus Circle. You have Masa, which is $800 a person. Then you have Per Se, which is also $800 a person. They’re in a mall.

With very few exceptions, interesting restaurants are where the rents are maybe not superhigh, because it gives the chefs more freedom to experiment. It gives them some freedom to fail, sometimes. If you’re a chef and you’re finding a place in a mall or a little house somewhere, then maybe you can buy it yourself or buy with the bank or maybe one or two backers. It’s your restaurant; you either succeed or you fail. You do everything on your own terms. Whereas if you’re in a restaurant that costs $12 million to build out and you're paying $20,000 a month in rent, then the restaurant doesn’t belong to you, it belongs to the people who are paying for it. So you can be fired from a restaurant with your name on it, which actually happens all the time.

LAC: What is the most bizarre Chinese food you’ve ever had?

Gold: I don’t think there is such a thing as bizarre food. It’s just food that people eat.

I was at a Vietnamese place in Little Saigon 25 years ago. I was with my girlfriend, who I later married. I was sort of bragging that, among the hundred restaurants on the street, I could tell which one was the good one.

We went to this place. It had mirrors that looked a certain way and the carpets were worn a certain way and it had chandeliers. You know that former communist look, right? There is that sort of communist grandeur.

There was a kind of beef on the menu, a special beef. I ordered it. They brought out the dish. It was in a pool of pureed liver-and-spleen organs. It stank of bad black vinegar. Inside were these pieces of skin. They almost looked like leather [with] tough furs sticking to them. Since I made such a stink about it, I had to eat them all.

The funny thing is, 20 years later, I came across a dish of steamed water buffalo hide in Laos. They steamed it so long in fragrant steam with a lot of ginger, and the skin turned slippery and soft. You could get it with hair or without hair. I realized, “Wait, this is that dish!” But it was done in the right way — instead of [tasting like you’re] chewing on somebody’s glove. It was actually delicious. 


Reach Senior Staff Reporter Gracie Zheng here; Follow her on Twitter



Craig Gillespie directed this true story about "the most daring rescue mission in the history of the U.S. Coast Guard.”

Watch USC Annenberg Media's live State of the Union recap and analysis here.