In the City of Angels, He Finds the Manna

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Jonathan Gold ordering from a L.A. taco truck in the documentary City of Gold. Courtesy of Goro Toshima. A Sundance Selects release.

Deep in an otherwise unremarkable Los Angeles neighborhood, standing in line at a remote, unexplored taco truck, greasy fingers vividly demonstrating a passion for eating, you might find Jonathan Gold.

Gold is a Pulitzer Prize-winning food critic — the first and only food critic to be awarded the honor — whose Los Angeles Times reviews have wowed the city since the 1990s.

He writes for other publications like LA Weekly and Gourmet and frequents radio talk shows, and he is the star of the upcoming documentary, City of Gold, directed by Laura Gabbert, which opens at the Ritz East on March 25.

He received so much acclaim for his work because his writing goes beyond the food — it details the lives and cultures booming and breathing within the mini malls and side streets of L.A.

The documentary provides a glimpse of Gold’s life — which, as you can imagine, calls for a large appetite.

The stout, ginger-and-gray-haired, freckled Gold, always suspenders-bedecked, drives all across L.A. in his Dodge pickup truck scouting for new venues.

He’s tasted and critiqued foods from all different cultures — Thai is his personal favorite — but Jewish food was also an important part of his upbringing.

“The delicatessen your family went to was almost more important than the shul that you went to,” Gold explained. “Every Sunday, there would be delis.”

“If your family went to Nate ’n Al’s,” he continued in the film, “you’re kind of fancy. If your family went to Label’s Table, you were probably pretty close to working-class. But if your family was going to Junior’s, you were doing all right.”

He even had a brief stint during college working at a kosher restaurant, Milky Way, which is owned by Leah Adler, the mother of Steven Spielberg.

“I’d never worked in a kitchen before, and I’d take three minutes to chop a carrot,” he admitted. He remembered looking at every single egg, too, looking for a spot of blood that would render it inedible. “It taught me that working on a line in a kitchen was not something for which I was temperamentally suited.”

But food was important nonetheless.

“As Jews, there’s something about Jewish food that touches something primal in us,” he added. “Even for those not religious, the smell of gefilte fish cooking or the smell of cholent in the oven, it stirs something in us. And when we come together and eat those foods, there’s this togetherness that is just wonderful and it’s enveloping.

“My wife is Mexican, and I know that’s the same thing for her side of the family, like the smell of the menudo on Christmas Eve, the particular fragrance of sweet bread when it’s cooking in the oven, the stink of tamales when you take the lid off the pot. That’s home, too.

“The beautiful thing about restaurants is it sort of lets us travel from one to the other. Hospitality brings out the best in all of us, I think.”

Gold, a cellist, originally wanted to pursue music. After graduating from UCLA, he started at LA Weekly as a proofreader.

Due to boredom, he created a challenge for himself: He was going to eat at every restaurant up and down Pico Boulevard, about a 15-mile stretch that reaches the Pacific Ocean.

And he did.

From there, he began to write and review, but his critiquing process, even today, has been an intricate one.

Sometimes undercover, he always eats at a restaurant at least three to five times — his record is 17 — before reviewing it, and, of course, tasting everything on the menu, which is why he often enjoys bringing friends to the meal.

“Sometimes when you go a restaurant that has one dish — and there are a lot of those — sometimes the third meal seems a little bit silly,” he laughed. But it is definitely a necessity for him.

He tries to cover the entire menu in those first few visits, usually accompanied by a friend because it’s nearly impossible for one person to consume an entire menu. The fourth visit is usually to check for consistency or to order something differently.

He also spends a great deal of time researching the food, culture, history or geography of the cuisine’s origins.

“I’ll try to know as much as I can about the menu,” he said. “I’ll try to think about the context in which it was cooked, what the chefs were doing before they did this, and being able to take what’s on the plate and put it in a context that makes sense within the landscape of Los Angeles.”

Although he only speaks English, he does understand a few foreign words on the menus.

“I can read menus in 14 or 15 different languages,” he said, with practice or help from technology like Google Translate, an app that transforms an image of words from one language to another.

Sometimes translating apps can be a little vague though, like when Google Translate interprets a type of dumpling as “flower cloud mountain,” he joked.

“As my wife always says about me, I know the names of 4,000 different dishes in Italian but I can’t ask ‘which way to the train station,’ ” he laughed.

Gold also cooks a lot at home for his wife, Laurie Ochoa, and his two children.

“I don’t think you have to be a chef or have gone to culinary school to be a restaurant critic,” he said, “but I think you do have to be curious about cooking. So much of it is what’s in the market and what the season is and what farmer is bringing the new chickens into town that have that extra depth of flavor.”

The film also shares the stories of the people Gold has impacted, something he was not fully aware of until watching it.

A rave review from Gold is sure to give a boost, and these small restaurateurs were nearing closures prior. But a solid review from Gold resuscitated their businesses — and they have been thriving ever since.

Gold enjoys knowing that he helped make a small business somewhat prosperous, but he credits it to their skills and passion.

“As a critic of anything, there’s a firewall between the critic and the people or the institutions they write about,” he said. “You just don’t know the effect you have on people’s lives. It’s like when you put something in the charity box at temple, it’s better not to know where it goes. The fact that it’s doing something is good.”

But writing about these restaurants isn’t an act of charity from Gold.

“They’re doing me the favor,” he said. “They’re giving me something to write about; they’re giving me something to be excited about; they’re giving the city of Los Angeles something to be excited about.”

Contact: [email protected]; 215-832-0737

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