One Lunch with Jonathan Gold

L.A.’s beloved food writer on his origin story, the myth of authenticity, the art of constructive criticism, the futility of Yelp, and what makes our city so great

You only have to care about one of three things to be a fan of Jonathan Gold’s work: good food, great writing, or the city of Los Angeles. And if you love all three, like I do, you are devastated by his death this week.

In 2016, I got an assignment from a travel guide to interview a few notable L.A. locals and edit their wisdom down to a handful of insights about the city. I took the opportunity to introduce myself to Jonathan Gold, the Pulitzer Prize-winning writer and self-described “belly of Los Angeles.” I was surprised when he replied to my email right away, and said he was a “big fan” of my work. I shouldn’t have been so shocked: He was known for his enthusiastic support of his fellow writers, especially those who were younger and still finding their way. He said he’d be delighted to get together. We met for lunch a few months later on Election Day, after we’d both voted but before the returns started rolling in. He suggested Sapp Coffee Shop in Thai Town, a place he once wrote “may be the best lunchroom in Hollywood.”

I must have known I’d want to revisit our conversation, because I kept the audio file. Gold was so smart and so generous, and it was a privilege to know him even a little bit. It seems only fair to share a long edit of this interview with the wider world. Picture yourself at the table with us, drinking Thai coffee and slurping jade noodles…

JG: It’s like my third time here this week.

AF: You should have said something! I would have been happy to go somewhere else.

JG: No, it’s fine. Your need this morning was noodles, and mine was coffee, and they have the best coffee in Thai Town, so…

AF: When was the first time you came here?

JG: It was the ’80s. It was a long time ago. I’m more or less a completist. I’ll eat everywhere.

AF: Does everything you eat translate to the written word, or do you ever eat somewhere that you’re like, I’m just going to keep this one for me?

JG: If there are 14 places serving a certain kind of dumpling, I don’t feel it necessary to tell people about all 14 just because I’ve been there. But I sort of find it necessary to have them all. Like this week I’m doing this place… it’s in Koreatown called Sun Nong Dan, it serves this soup called galbi jjim, which is short ribs cooked down until they’re almost like a jam. It’s like a super homestyle dish. And this place has just insane lines outside of it. Hours long. David Chang Instagrammed it —

AF: — I was just about to ask what created the lines.

JG: I’m not sure what came first. I will say a lot of people know that David Chang Instagrammed it. I’m not quite at the level where I can Instagram a place and it’ll become mobbed after that. But I can do a paragraph on something and it’ll end up being mobbed.

AF: Do you want to get to that Instagram level?

JG: No. No, it’s strange going out and people taking selfies all the time. I’m not a pop star or an actor.

AF: You’re a local icon.

JG: Yeah… As should you be! Do you have people coming up asking you to do pie charts?

AF: No.

JG: You should!

AF: Maybe in a narrow demo… But I think it’s great that we live in a world where people are approaching strangers like, “You’re an incredible writer, I want to take my photo with you.” Rather than just, “You’re a pretty face.”

JG: That’s definitely one of the benefits of the job: I write about a place, somebody goes there and they’re happy, then they associate their happiness with me. That’s not bad, right?

AF: I think that extends to the city of L.A. I think the city gets the collective benefit of your work.

JG: Thank you.

AF: Yeah. That’s why I can’t get too mad at the selfie-takers.

JG: [Laughs.] I don’t get mad at them. It means that somebody reads and cares. Although at the polling place today might not have been the right time…

AF: You’re like, I’m just trying to do my civic duty.

JG: [Laughs.]

AF: So where else have you eaten this week?

JG: So I ate at Sun Nong Dan, but I also ate at three other places that did that dish.

AF: So you could definitively be like, “This is the one”?

JG: Exactly. I’m not sure that this was the one, but they figured out how to make it… sexy? Which in a way is weird, right. Because it’s sort of a meatloaf thing. It’s like something your mom makes. But they serve it in a super-heated stone pot. And by super-heated I mean it keeps bubbling for easily 25 minutes after it hits the table. And it sears the bottom and it reduces the sauce. For $3 — and basically everybody under 30 does it — you can like get a handful of grated cheese put on it. And this old woman with a blowtorch sits there and melts your cheese laboriously.

AF: If it’s bubbling, why do you need a blowtorch to melt it?

JG: It’s just a service that they provide. [Laughs.] Most versions are sweet but this one is also spicier and more garlicky, they’ve sort of amped everything up. The place only serves basically variations on two dishes. One is that, and the one is, I guess it’s sort of a bone broth, which you can get with brisket or tongue or head or whatever cattle part we deem necessary.

AF: I like the idea of deeming a cattle part necessary. [Laughs.] Sorry, I need this part today.

JG: [Laughs.] There’s a taqueria in Santa Barbara I like that… most of what they serve revolves around a stewed cow’s head. You can order it by name or you can point to the part of the cow’s head that you’d like your taco to be made of. It’s pretty bland, but then you put salsa, cilantro, and onion and stuff on it, and it’s pretty good. There’s a couple of places in East L.A. that do that, but there you have to order it by name.

AF: Like, it wouldn’t be on the menu?

JG: It would be on the menu, but you wouldn’t be able to point at a whole cow’s head and say what you want.

AF: Ah, the visual.

JG: That’s one of the great things about L.A. You can decide that you want to eat essentially as if you live in Guadalajara, or you can decide you want to eat essentially as if you are in Chengdu. There are enough places around that you could probably manage it. I’m not just talking for a meal, I’m talking about live the life.

AF: Do you remember at which point you realized that? Or did you grow up in an L.A. where you knew that was possible to taste the rest of the world?

JG: This is sort of my origin story, and I apologize because I’ve said it before. But when I was right out of UCLA I had a sort of dreadful job as a legal proofreader downtown. I lived on Pico Boulevard, and almost as something to do, I decided I was going to try to eat at every restaurant on Pico, starting at a Salvadoran restaurant at the Coca-Cola building all the way down to the curly fry stand at the beach. And every day I’d go to one, then I’d go to the next one. One was closed and I’d have to double back. I had to decide whether I’d count the people who were selling elotes or salted cantaloupe. And I realized that, what had seemed to me an un-variegated stretch of Spanish-language stuff — which, growing up here, I assumed was Mexican — in fact it wasn’t even mostly Mexican. It was Salvadorans, it was Hondurans, it was chapines from Guatemala, and the remnants of an old Cuban neighborhood. Then you start to figure out, wait a second, when you’re dealing with Nicaraguan food, there’s places that serve food from the mountains, there’s places that serve the coastal stuff. El Salvador is a tiny country about the size of Orange County, but there’s still regions. And the Mexican places weren’t just “Mexican,” they were from Jalisco or Sinaloa or Colima and they all had different stuff. I suppose that’s the point where I learned about it.

AF: That’s so magical to me. I’m very jealous of my friends from L.A. I’m from a small, homogenous town. I sometimes think, who would I be if I grew up here?

JG: But then you have this Iowa thing. It expands outward, right?

AF: Maybe. At least I get to discover it now as an adult. Do you feel like there’s anything left for you to discover in L.A. at this point?

JG: This city is huge, and there’s always something you don’t know. And that’s one of the great things about food to begin with: You can’t know everything about it. Even if you think you do, it’s always changing. People talk a lot about the concept of authenticity, and I don’t think it exists. It’s constantly mutating. To a point where a lot of the older places in Koreatown are keeping what they think is absolutely authentic to what Korean food was in Seoul when they left, but when they left was very possibly the mid-’70s, when Seoul went from being not-very-advance to the single most modern city in the world right now. Have you been there?

AF: No. I would love to go.

JG: So they’re serving this completely, beautiful, unvarnished stuff from the ‘70s. Sometimes it blows people’s minds when they come from Korea.

AF: It’s like going back in time?

JG: It’s like going back in time! But there’s also such intercourse between things, that if something’s a fad in Korea, it’ll be a fad here. There are some things like L.A. galbi, which is a style of short ribs that cuts through the bones, that started here and went there. They had that soontofu stew there, but it took a place here for it to become super popular, and then a million places opened there, and they had the same décor as that woman [in Koreatown] did.

AF: Are there any places here that have closed that you’re still mourning the loss of?

JG: [Laughs.] Sure, all the time. A couple of times there’s a restaurant that comes, and it’s based on a weird idea, and you know it can’t last. A couple of blocks from here there was a restaurant above the supermarket, and I forget what it was called, but the idea was to get really good Thai chefs from all over, regional chefs from Thailand. Except in practice it didn’t work that well. The system of bringing out stuff was wrong, so stuff got put on the wrong tables. If you were not Thai, you didn’t know that this wasn’t the dish you ordered, so you just sort of ate it. [Laughs.] But the vendors from there went out to form their own places. There was a place like that above a skating rink in Monterey Park, that was the first full-blown Taiwanese place, maybe. But it had, again, different kinds of Taiwanese food than you’d expect only to get in one restaurant, split into a dozen places. It’s always fun to see places mutate.

AF: As a positive? Not that you miss it?

JG: Oh, I completely miss it.

AF: So it’s fine that it’s gone, and you miss it.

JG: Yeah.

AF: Has anyone tried to recruit you into the restaurant business?

JG: Yeah, there was one point when I’d been doing years as a critic at the old California magazine. And this guy, who was like head of a bajillionare property company, wanted me to develop restaurants for him. And the money was about ten times what I was making. And [his wife] Laurie [Ochoa] said she’d leave me so… [Laughs.]

AF: So that settled it?

JG: Kinda! [Laughs]

AF: So you were tempted?

JG: I thought about it. You know. You must get offered weird jobs all the time.

AF: At the end of the day, it’s never anything I can really picture myself doing. Like could you really picture yourself doing that?

JG: No, no. The most recent one was, somebody from one of the big national chains wanted me to consult. But it was obviously one of those things where if anyone ever found out, my career was over. And so it had to be a really, really, really interesting amount of money. And it turned out to only be an interesting amount of money. [Laughs heartily.]

AF: I suppose I should figure out my price.

JG: But I will admit I took some meetings last month. I have no idea why. I was in this documentary, and some really well-known production company had the idea that they were going to make a sitcom about my life. With me as the bumbling, good-natured white guy in an all-Latino family. And it seemed like free money so I was like, oh, fine.

AF: For signing over the rights to your life? What was the free money actually for?

JG: Well, we had a couple of meetings, and there’s nothing like sitting in a room full of network execs, hearing team of producers discuss your life in the third person as if you were not in the room, and assign you all this stuff, all these characteristics. For example, my best friend was supposed to be my editor and I was supposed to go to all these therapy sessions with him.

AF: Who goes to therapy with their editor? Your editor is therapy!

JG: I know. But one of the subplots in the movie was my deadline panic, as if this has not happened to every other writer in this history of mankind. You’re so prolific, maybe it doesn’t happen to you?

AF: No, no it happens all the time. I’m an extreme procrastinator. Without deadline panic I’d never produce anything, ever.

JG: So I have deadline panic, and I’m supposed to go to a shrink about that, but my character says, “Only if you come with me every time, editor.” And he did it. Realistic, right?

AF: Super realistic.

JG: I don’t know why. I couldn’t do it.

AF: Do you think you’d be getting adaptation offers if you were in another city? Or is that an L.A.-specific thing?

JG: That’s an L.A.-specific thing. If you’re in New York, other things happen. In New York, you get a book deal if you decide to put three peanuts into a sauce instead of two peanuts.

AF: There’s a conversation among my friends about how or whether L.A. is changing as more and more New Yorkers find it “acceptable.”

JG: New Yorkers have always liked what they thought was particularly “Los Angeles.” It was the Ivy for awhile, which is uniquely horrible — it’s in West Hollywood on Robertson. You used to go there to see the New York magazine editors, looking at the two movie people who happened to stop by. Now it’s definitely Gjelina and Gjusta.

AF: Sqirl.

JG: Sqirl, yeah. Maybe Nancy [Silverton]’s restaurants, but maybe not because they’re not so vegetable-vegetable-vegetable. Lucques used to be the norm. The food was perfectly good, it was vegetable-forward, and the chef looked like she did a lot of pilates.

AF: Ah, so that’s the New York criteria for “L.A. restaurant.”

JG: I don’t know if you read the piece — I did a thing on Dan Tana’s. Which was fascinating. Because I went to Beverly High, and it was definitely a place where the really rich kids would sometimes go, often with their parents. I described a horrible date that I had there my senior year of high school. And I guess it was bad enough that I hadn’t been back since then. I go back, and it’s like, well, this is weirdly exactly the same. These are the same people. I mean, to a large extent they’re not younger versions of the same people. They’re just the same people. That’s what happened to Spago. All the regulars died.

AF: That explains why I don’t know anyone who’s been to Spago. I just read Eve Babitz for the first time, and Dan Tana’s pops up in her writing. I think I went once for a drink while I was waiting for something to start at the Troubadour. When I read about glamorous L.A. institutions of the ‘70s and ‘80s, I always forget I could still go there. I don’t actually think about it as a place I could access.

JG: Like, Musso’s glamour days were probably the ‘30s, so it’s much easier to think of yourself as being that.

AF: In that L.A. issue of Lucky Peach they interviewed several people about the most L.A. restaurant they could think of, and several of them said Musso’s.

JG: I didn’t have it on my 99 this year and they were screaming.

AF: Really?

JG: There were two places that I left off that I really shouldn’t have. One was that, and the other was this place in San Gabriel called Golden Deli, which has been on my list as long as I’ve been doing these. It felt like an act of betrayal to leave it off.

AF: But at a certain point are you like, I’ve got to switch it up?

JG: You would think. But their spring rolls are still the best. [Laughs.] But there’s a Lebanese restaurant in Hollywood called Marouch, and it’s just great. Everybody has their Lebanese place that they like, and this one’s mine. I’ve strayed on them but I always end up back there because Sosi’s such a really good cook. I get a lot of, “This has been on your list for the last 15 years, aren’t you gonna…” No. Like this one, this place has probably been on almost every time.

AF: Have you ever done an almost-made-it list? A B-team?

JG: I’ll usually do a post like that every year.

AF: Oh really? Sorry, I’m out of it.

JG: I mean, there’s no reason you should read them. Yes, you should read me if you want to know where to go, but you don’t have to be a completist or one of those people who carries a crumpled copy of the 101 and comes up and says, “Look! I’ve been to 83 of them!”

AF: I’m not a hobbyist eater. I really enjoy food, but—I’m sure everyone says this—I’m not a foodie.

JG: The word “foodie” is not a bad term, because you know exactly what it means. It’s just that so many of the people that foodies don’t want to be associated with have adopted the term “foodie” that foodies don’t want to be associated with it anymore.

AF: What is the preferred nomenclature?

JG: I don’t know. I use “foodists,” I use “enthusiasts,” I use “connoisseurs” sometimes, that being firmly tongue-in-cheek. But what I really mean is foodies. [Laughs.] Do you cook?

AF: I love to cook. Do you like to cook?

JG: Oh, I love to cook.

AF: As a working-from-home thing, it’s nice to have an act to transition from day to evening, and cooking is a really good one. It doesn’t involve words.

JG: Yeah. And there’s always that thing, where you can chop a few things, rinse a few things, put your pot on the stove, and then you’ve got this wonderful pot of black-eyed peas just burbling along.

AF: Do you have any markets you really like?

JG: I love the Hollywood Farmers Market. Sometimes I go to the Pasadena Farmers Market because it’s closer. But those would be the two. McCall’s Meat and Fish in Los Feliz I think is fantastic. I like Chinese supermarkets for a lot of stuff, usually your duck’s gonna be a little bit fresher. For live crabs. There are few things better than a live Dungeness crab, other than a cooked Dungeness crab.

AF: I suppose we should get the check. People keep texting me nervously about the election. I don’t know what to tell them. What do you say to someone who’s nervous about the election at this point?

JG: But people kind of look to you for calm and resolve about politics, don’t they? Right?

AF: I don’t know.

JG: You’re a really good feminist voice.

AF: Thank you. I didn’t come for the compliments, but…

JG: I know you didn’t. But you’re always sensible, you don’t panic, you’re incredibly disdainful of people who deserve to be disdained.

AF: Thank you so much. I try, I try. I was having a conversation the other day with a friend about meanness as a quality that I always avoid. And the friend was like, well, it’s actually a really powerful writing technique, and it’s a tool to be used, and sometimes you need to use meanness. In your criticism, are you ever like, “That’s too mean a thing to say about a place?”

JG: I went through this period in my career when I was closing restaurants. And in the early part of my career I was like, “Yesss.” You know? It’s probably how a hunter feels when he brings down a buffalo or something. And then, it started to really bother me. In a way, if somebody writes a bad review of The Avengers movie, Marvel will probably exist on Monday. But if I write a negative review of a restaurant, I’m at the point where it may well close. And I’d put 40 people or whatever out of work because I have an aesthetic opinion. And people who have bad restaurants aren’t necessarily bad people. I mean, they’re probably good people because they want to make people happy. They’re just not very good at their jobs. And yeah, I have to… I don’t do that kind of review anymore. When I was in New York there was this perfectly dreadful restaurant called… Atlas, I think? And William Grimes, the New York Times restaurant critic had said it was his favorite restaurant. And it was not just pretentious, not just dreadful, but dreadful and pretentious. [The chef] did things like serve us a full sea urchin with the roe inside, with quince jelly, bean sprouts, and cocoa. I mean, you just want to go back in the kitchen and shake him.

AF: It seems like a joke. Like, take over this restaurant, do LSD, and make up a plate of food.

JG: Because others loved it so much I figured I could say what I felt. It was the first negative review in the history of [Gourmet]. And the restaurant closed. Quickly. They made a documentary about him a few years ago and wanted to fly me to New York and I just said… no. He’s suffered enough. I think he almost wanted to do one of those twelve-step things where you do the apologies.

AF: You don’t want to be part of that. There was a debate when BuzzFeed started a books section, and the editor essentially said something like that: We’re not going to do negative reviews, we’re here to point you to what we like and what we think is interesting. I had no problem with that. I was like, they’re up front about what they’re here to do. But there was uproar among critics who were like, it’s positivity run amok!

JG: But my reviews aren’t necessarily positive. Like my review last Saturday, I started out by saying, “You’re going to hate this restaurant. No, you’re really going to hate this.” Then I went on for 400 words listing the ways this restaurant was going to drive you out of your mind. But the food is really good. There’s going to be stuff you get that, if you’re my general reader, you’re going to hate. But the food is extraordinary in this way. Or, when I did the Dan Tana’s thing, it’s like everybody has a good time there, I look forward to it. But the less you can eat, maybe the better?

AF: That seems like a hard line to walk.

JG: If there’s a restaurant that does one thing well, I may actually concentrate on the one thing they do well, and I’ll list the many, many things they don’t do well. This sounds bullshit, but it’s constructive criticism. I’ve done this enough, I know enough about how this experience should work, I know enough about how flavors fit together, I know who your influences are, I know where you buy your ingredients, I know what this should taste like and why it isn’t working. And I will always err on the side of giving the benefit of the doubt, especially to a young chef who’s trying something. Because I think it’s important to encourage people at that age to be creative, to try things out, to not be skewered because they’re being ambitious in a way that doesn’t quite work. And I think that’s important for basically any scene. If you have a critic who will tell you where you went wrong and praise you when you’re trying something and give you the benefit of the doubt in a way that lets everybody know that this is somebody worth watching, rather than thumbs up or thumbs down.

AF: Right, not just giving it one star and moving on with your day.

JG: I mean, there’s some useful things about Yelp. Say a restaurant caters to, maybe, Taiwanese teenagers. With Yelp, you can, for the first time, hear what Taiwanese teenagers think about it. Which is not irrelevant. Whether the food is good or not is a different question. But whether it’s pleasing the people it is very explicitly meant to please? You know, that’s something. That said, using Yelp to figure out where you want to have dinner is useless. It’ll tell you where [the restaurant] is. If you are between the ages of 19 and 26 and have a drinking problem and you’re an extrovert, Yelp is probably right in your ballpark.

AF: So what would you tell someone who doesn’t have good local connections about how to find a great restaurant in, say, Thai Town? This is a leading question…

JG: It could be self-serving to have them google “Jonathan Gold” and “Thai Town.” Which is actually, because I’ve been doing this long enough, not a bad way to go. If you trust my taste. But I don’t know. Because everything you do, you’re going to a list, right? You’re either going to my lists, or you’re going to the Thrillist lists, which are not as good as mine. Or you’re going to an Eater list, which, come on. [Laughs.]

AF: [Laughs.] I always want to know where everyone else is going so I can avoid that place.

JG: Not that I don’t look at Eater. They’re really really really concerned with being the first on the scene when a restaurant opens. They will do their most important writing about a restaurant before it opens. Which is obviously something I can’t do, because I go back five times. It depends what you’re looking for. That’s one of the questions that comes up the most, though: Have we passed the time of needing critics?

AF: I think good criticism, like yours, is more useful than ever. As long as you want to write reviews, there will be people eager to read them. Do you think you’ll ever retire?

JG: You know writers can’t retire.

A few quotes from this interview originally appeared in the Wildsam Field Guide to Los Angeles.