“First we eat, then we do everything else,” food writer MFK Fisher
If there’s one thing that I’ve missed since retiring from the County of Los Angeles, it would have to be… Beer Belly Restaurant’s duck sandwiches with au jus duck sauce. Or Cristo’s roasted Greek lamb with fried potatoes. Or Greenblatt’s thinly sliced cucumber in vinegar and fresh dill. Or the street corner vendor on Wilshire/Vermont and her fat sausages cooked on an open grill with onion and green and red bell peppers. Or any number of culinary delights I could always find on the streets of L.A.
I was reminded of all this while watching City of Gold, a documentary as entertaining and droll as its main subject, L.A. Times food critic Jonathan Gold. Gold, who won the 2007 Pulitzer Prize (the first food critic to do so) is known in foodie circles as a sort of culinary anthropologist. He typically eschews well-known, upper crust dining establishments in favor of smaller, hard-to-find ethnic restaurants. As Gold puts it, “The fault lines between [L.A. culture] is where you find the most beautiful things.”
We first see Gold, a rotund gentleman with long yellowish hair and suspenders, sitting in front of his laptop and staring at the blank screen. Then the fingers start flying and we see the introduction to a food essay: “If you are the guy who lifted my cellphone last year, you may have noticed that the camera roll was rich in taco snapshots.” From this eye-catching hook, Gold moves on to a detailed description of Guerilla Tacos, a rolling blue taco van which services L.A. Meanwhile, we are treated to shots of Guerilla tacos with all sorts of fillings: Meat, fish, egg, cilantro, radish, and fried cauliflower(!).
The rest of the movie proceeds in a similar way, as Gold introduces us to Antojitos Carmen in Boyle Heights, Petit Trois (French fusion restaurant in Hollywood), Meals by Genet (Ethiopian restaurant in Beverly Hills), Early’s Hot Dog Grill in South Central, and any number of other eateries all over the Los Angeles area. In learning about these places, we also get to hear the backstories of the owners and their struggles in claiming their place in the American food industry.
While watching Gold eat his way across L.A., we experience his lively, toothsome writing style. Here is an excerpt from his critique of Antojito Denise’s in Hollywood:
“…Los Angeles is something of a wonderland for fans of the braised-pork dish carnitas, but even here, Denise’s carnitas stand out: soft, long-simmered pillows of concentrated pig flavor, the sweet gaminess of the meat brought out, an occasional crisp edge but tending toward a rich, almost puddinglike texture.”
Hungry yet? Don’t worry; by the time you finish this film, you will be.
What is fascinating about Gold is that he sees a vastly different landscape than those of us who live and work in the L.A. area. At one point, we ride with Gold in his brown Toyota pickup truck on a major boulevard in El Monte. As we pass warehouses, old used car lots and mini malls, Gold points out the only Chinese Islamic restaurant in El Monte; Pho Hunah, a Vietnamese restaurant famous for its pho (soup-stew), Nanjing Kitchen, known for its boiled duck; and several other eateries. Gold concludes, “People not from Los Angeles sometimes don’t understand the beauty that can be found in mini malls.”
Indeed, Gold sees a sort of beauty that many of us who stick with the local Red Robin or Sizzlers Steak House miss. Over and over again he emphasizes the value of food as culture, and the opportunities we have in Southern California to learn about other people and cultures through their food.
So, please see this film and experience Los Angeles in a new way. Oh, and watch out for that Jitlada spicy Thai soup: it’s a five alarm dish!
You can purchase City of Gold on instant Amazon at the following address:
You can also purchase Gold’s collection of restaurant reviews, Counter Intelligence, Where to Eat in the Real Los Angeles, at the following address:
Pluses: Jonathan Gold’s amiable, eccentric personality “flavors” the film beautifully. Lots of great shots of the streets of the L.A. basin.
Minus: Can’t eat the food from the screen!
Cast: Jonathan Gold, David Chang, Roy Choi, Ruth Reichl, Calvin Trillin, Garth Trinidad, Evan Kleiman
Director: Laura Gabbert
Rating: R (for some language)
Length: 91 minutes