Movie Review: A gastronomic look at Los Angeles in “City of Gold”.
There is a sort of secret Los Angeles, a Los Angeles you so don’t often see portrayed in films and television. I speak of the sprawling multicultural grid that its residents know intimately, where the best Thai food can be found tucked away in East Hollywood strip malls, where some of the city’s best Oaxacan food exists in Koreatown, and where the city’s various ethnic and cultural factions openly bring their native cuisines to the bustling city streets for all to enjoy. For quite a long time, you didn’t see or hear about this Los Angeles, in spite of the fact that it’s probably more indicative of the city itself than many portrayals in popular media where characters don’t venture east of the 405 freeway. These are, as food critic Jonathan Gold puts it in the marvelous new documentary “City of Gold”, the same folks who book hotels in Beverly Hills, eat whatever they can within a three-block radius and then proceed to lecture you at length about the virtues of L.A.’s culinary scene. In making his point, Gold reveals what many of us have always known, which is that he’s more than just a food critic: he is an astute and unusual social observer, a man so in love with the city he calls home that he once made it his mission to eat at every single restaurant on L.A.’s famous Pico Blvd. thoroughway. Native Angelinos will understand this undertaking alone is no small feat. Gold is a man who takes food, and more importantly, food culture seriously.
“City of Gold,” like Mr. Gold himself, is warm, generous and democratic. It’s an affectionate and tender portrayal of a city of great diversity, one where you can drive to the historically Latino East Side of Los Angeles in search of the perfect Jalisco style shrimp taco (drenched in avocado and salsa, of course) and eat it alongside lawyers and locs alike — such is the glorious and messy mosaic of the city. Mr. Gold is in love with the various flavors and textures of Los Angeles, and what’s more is that he invites us to share in his discoveries. He’s an unexpectedly fascinating subject for a documentary, and the breezy “City of Gold” is buoyed by his congenial and lightly eccentric presence. As Mr. Gold cruises from Westwood to the San Gabriel Valley in his puke-green 1970’s pickup truck, perpetually in search of the perfect taco or perhaps that bowl of Korean porridge that’s just right, we are invited to embark on this wooly gastronomic adventure with him — or, as one of his colleagues at the Los Angeles Times puts it later in the film, to “sit at his table”.
I should probably note that Jonathan Gold has been as instrumental in my understanding of L.A.’s vast and beguiling food scene as Ernest Hemingway has in my concept of writing in general. L.A. is a city where some of the best food exists just out of plain sight — in a nondescript strip mall, for instance, or at a taco truck in a Mid-City gas station that serves up mouth-watering Al Pastor (con pina, for the die-hards) from a Shawerma-style meat spit. If you consult Yelp and Zagat for recommendations as to the best spots in town, you will quite simply be disappointed. There’s plenty of fancy, fine-dining experiences in our city that don’t match up to the experience of eating the perfect taco on a curbside next to a handful of other hungry Angelinos, or perhaps wandering into an old smokehouse on the corner of Western and 8th to sample what may very well be the juiciest and most flavorful Rotisserie chicken on the West Coast (Pollo a la Brasa in Koreatown, look it up).
What makes Gold a revolutionary food writer, and an important writer, period is that he thinks and writes about these divey joints with the same degree of thoughtfulness and research that many other critics might reserve for an establishment of greater esteem. Gold, in short, is no snob: he’s one of us, a gangster rap-loving, cat-owning, big-hearted lover of life who wants to eat pretty much everything under the sun. He doesn’t quite get there in “City of Gold,” but he does sample some of the more exotic food options in the greater Los Angeles area, cruising from the bombed-out hoods of South Central to the toney polish of West L.A. and viewing it all with the same loving eye.
Laura Gabbert’s funny, fast-paced doc begins by tracing Jonathan Gold’s roots back to his earliest days growing up in Los Angeles. The son of a probation officer that grew up in crime-plagued South L.A. in the 1980’s, Gold started off as a proofreader for L.A. Weekly and eventually went on to become a full-on music journalist, covering everything from crusty punk shows to local mariachi music and even sitting in on many of the recording sessions for Snoop Dogg’s West Coast g-funk classic “Doggystyle” (Gold’s bemused reaction when asked about his affiliation with the Doggfather is almost unreasonably funny). While toiling in the trenches of authorial obscurity, Gold discovered what was to be his life’s obsession: food, and more importantly, the food of Los Angeles.
The movie travels to many of Gold’s favorite eateries: many of them, like Thai staple Jitlada in Thai Town or Little Ethiopia’s Meals by Genet, are the product of immigrant families and generations of culinary tradition, and many of them would have sadly petered out without Mr. Gold’s endorsements. Gabbert also interviews local chefs like Roy Choi, the K-town stoner chef whose casual mastery of Asian and Hawaiian cuisines is hardly at odds with his seeming need to feed over half of Los Angeles. There’s a tensely funny sequence too when Gold visits upscale West Hollywood bistro Trois Mec, prompting the restaurant’s head chef Ludo Lefevbre into a fit of panic. From the S.G.V. to the streets of Watts, Mr. Gold shines a light on the many cultures represented in L.A.’s food scene as only he can: with a minimum of pretense, a wealth of curiosity and a bountiful appetite.
Like all good critical writers, Mr. Gold tells stories. His reviews are snapshots of neighborhoods, evoking the sights, sounds of above all, the smells of urban Los Angeles in motion. “City of Gold” offers us some genuine insight into Gold’s history as a writer as well as his family life — if the movie is any indication, he’s a loving and happy husband, and also a father of two — but it is primarily about his relationship to the city, and how his writing has transcended the categorization of food criticism to become an authentic reflection of the city it represents. The defining quality that has made Gold a valuable cultural contributor in the last decade or so is his curiosity: his willingness to seek the unknown and find meaning in it. In “City of Gold,” he takes us on a journey that is both alien and strangely familiar — and also incredibly rewarding. A-