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LA Food Writers Remember Jonathan Gold

Bloggers, writers, and editors look at Jonathan Gold’s best passages

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City of Gold Documentary
Jonathan Gold
City of Gold Documentary

In Los Angeles, everything is connected by the open — or, more often clogged — road. Jonathan Gold, the city’s longtime food writer and restaurant critic, who died on Saturday at 57, knew those roads better than any Google map.

Those highways and side streets led him to Armenian pizza, broasted chicken, Georgian dumplings, goat stew, strong cocktails, mile-high sandwiches, the freshest spring rolls, fire-y lamb skewers, stuffed doughnuts, “filter organs,” whole fish, and so many tacos. The food was the draw, but the people — and their cultures, languages, histories, and lives — were the story. Here, LA’s food writers remember the passages from Gold’s reviews that they’ll never forget.

Evan Kleiman, host Good Food, KCRW

The Dal Rae at Christmas — freaking hell, the Dal Rae at Christmas, a pulsing, meat-scented wonderland of dark wood and smoked mirrors and shrimp cocktails as big as spaniel pups, Old-Fashioneds pulsing with sugar, tiny lightbulbs of such profusion and such blinking complexity that it can feel as if you are trapped on the inside of a vintage Rock-Ola. That Marvin Gaye song coming from the back of the room — that’s tonight’s master of the piano bar, who manages to make his modified karaoke versions of KRLA oldies sound an awful lot like Huggy Bear’s finest, although the density of cardigans surrounding him is such that it may take you a moment to realize that this is the same place where you used to come to hear old guys sing Dean Martin songs to an appreciative audience of pinky-ring aficionados.

There is something about the propulsive nature of his prose that mirrors the traffic in LA when it’s flowing.

Bill Esparza, food writer, author of L.A. Mexicano

What Flor del Rio serves, no matter how piteously children may plead for quesadillas or bowlsful of crunchy chips, is birria de chivito Zacatecas-style, young goat roasted and stewed and simmered until it is an animal transformed, a soft, gelatinous sigh drawn from the carcass of a tough-minded billy, an étude in the keys of chile, strong meat and clove.

That’s from “Flor del Rio Will Get Your Goat,” in LA Weekly, July 15, 2009. No one in any language has ever described birria, which loosely translates to “a messy stew,” so beautifully, as a brief musical piece written to display technique. Chiles are the base of this stew and essential to Mexican cookery. Jonathan Gold captured that in a way that you can taste the mellifluous broth, with staccato notes of spices. Brilliant and awe inspiring.

Lucas Peterson, writer, host, Dining on a Dime

Everybody in the world has an idea of what Los Angeles is. Everybody thinks they know what Los Angeles means, even if they’ve never been here. And, if you live in Los Angeles, you’re used to having your city explained to you by people who come in for a couple of weeks, stay at a hotel in Beverly Hills, and take in what they can get to within 10 minutes of their rented car. The thing that people find hard to understand, I think, is sort of the magnitude of what’s here, the huge number of multiple cultures that live in the city who come together in this beautiful and haphazard fashion. And the fault lines between them are sometimes where you find the most beautiful things.

Jonathan displays here his druid-like understanding of Los Angeles, which is what made him truly great — not merely his virtuosic descriptions of curdled pig’s blood or various shades of organ meat. I can think of critics who are fine writers but on some level indifferent to the cities they serve. Jonathan loved Los Angeles deep in his marrow and you could feel that love in his writing. Jonathan would fight and go to the mat for his city and its citizens at any place and any time, and that, more than anything else, is why he will be remembered as the best.

I’m reminded of a story I heard about Vladimir Nabokov when he taught a course on the book Ulysses at Cornell University in the 1950s. Supposedly, students walked into the final exam and were given one simple instruction: Draw a map of Dublin. That, Nabokov decided, is how he would separate those who merely read the book from those who truly understood it. And I would suggest the same for the gatekeepers at the L.A. Times who are charged with the terrible, unenviable task of someday, somehow, finding another food critic. When potential candidates arrive at the paper’s newly-christened offices in El Segundo, they should be handed a cup of coffee and a sheet of paper with one directive and one directive alone: Draw a map of Los Angeles.

Esther Tseng, writer

Golden Deli’s spring rolls, cha gio, are crusty, golden things, four inches long and as thick as a fat man’s thumb, crudely rolled in a manner that suggests rustic abundance rather than clumsiness, and perfectly, profoundly crisp. You wrap leaves of romaine lettuce around them, forming bursting green tacos that you may stuff with fistfuls of mint, cilantro, opal basil, and rau ram, an odd, elongated herb with a powerful metallic taste. You may add a few shreds of marinated carrot and turnip, a slice of cucumber, and a squirt of hot chile paste. You dip the bundles into little bowls of nuoc cham, which is the thin, sweetish fish sauce that Vietnamese use as ubiquitously as Americans use catsup. Then you bite through the vegetable-crunchy herbs to the many-layered rice-paper crispness of the spring roll wrapper, hot oil, the garlicky, pepper-hot forcemeat of crab and minced pork inside. No two bites are alike. Golden Deli has a long and complicated menu, but it is difficult to contemplate a meal without at least one order of the cha gio.

Golden Deli was my first real foray into Vietnamese food. I was in awe of the way, in Counter Intelligence, Gold described the components of the must-order appetizer and precisely contrasted the pho broth to those of other shops in L.A., approaching its dauntingly large menu with unmitigated purpose and translating the restaurant’s appeal to a larger audience. Back then, I became hyper aware of the way I had automatically dismissed the notion of white people appreciating things like fish sauce, strange herbs, and strips of tripe floating amongst thin rice noodles in beef broth. Gold’s words, his humility, his kindness and most of all, his way of learning about and understanding people and their traditions, gave me the glimpse of the integrated Los Angeles I wanted to see and make real in my own life.

Zach Brooks, founder Midtown Lunch, Food Is the New Rock

While nobody was paying attention, food quietly assumed the place in youth culture that used to be occupied by rock ‘n’ roll — individual, fierce and intensely political, communal yet congenial to aesthetic extremes: embracing veganism or learning to butcher a cow; eating tofu or head cheese, bean sprouts or pigs’ ears.

When I started Food Is the New Rock, there was no question in my mind who was going to be the very first official guest and I didn’t launch the podcast until I got Gold to (finally) say yes. He started his career as a music writer, famously chronicling the birth of West Coast Hip Hop for Spin and LA Weekly, and I was excited to hear him talk about going to barbecues at Easy E’s mom’s house, or running into Dr. Dre at Junior’s Deli. He was the embodiment of our thesis, as well as its inspiration and validation. I admired him so much and am scared to think about just how much he will be missed.

Hadley Tomicki, writer, editor

Counter Intelligence was my bible when I moved back to SoCal in 2004, way more seductive and comprehensible than the Thomas Guide for charting LA. I prize so many J Gold reviews. His lyrical writing made me fall in love with this city and see that its sidewalks were more beautiful than its stars before I even traveled its full breadth. My all-time favorite might be his review of El Parian and an image often comes to mind from his first review of Roy Choi’s Chego, where he describes “a rice bowl highlighted by a slab of pork belly that has been burnished as lovingly with Korean chile paste as a ‘64 Impala show car has been rubbed with lacquer.”

But it’s this paragraph from his original review of Mo Chica in LA Weekly that continues to blow my mind:

On one of my walks to a cevicheria, my path was suddenly blocked by a tiny sedan with a little cherry of a red light on top, a bulby police car that looked like something out of Roger Rabbit, and the two police officers gestured for me to get in. It was not a pleasant ride. They yelled at me in Spanish, and laughed when I told them I was just going for ceviche. The one in the passenger seat pulled out a pistol, pointed it at my head and whispered, “Boom.” They drove me by a crumbling prison, slowing down so that I could see it well. And when they finally got tired of me — they figured out I wasn’t a terrorist or a drug dealer — they patted me down, took exactly $200 from my money belt and let me out in front of what they said was a much better ceviche restaurant than the one I had been trying to walk to. It was the best ceviche I ever had in my life.

Josh Lurie, founder of Food GPS

Jonathan Gold showed the world that restaurants are about so much more than the foods that appear on plates or in bowls. Restaurants are about the people who run them, their cultures and traditions, and their contributions to connected communities. His artistry went way beyond how he described the decor. He also dazzled readers with poetic context that set the scene by drawing from a bottomless well of pop culture references, geography and history lessons. I don’t know whether it’s my all-time favorite Jonathan Gold prose, but his Langer’s Deli description was evocative in ways nobody else could have captured.

In the course of the half-block walk from the Alvarado Blue Line station you will smell the food from a half-dozen Central American countries, pass within sight of Mexican street murals and be offered the opportunity to buy fresh mangoes, counterfeit green cards and cut-rate cumbia compilations. Within the deli itself, you may wait for a table with customers speaking Spanish, Korean or Chiapin dialect, though probably not Yiddish.

This is all before he even bothers to mention the inevitable payoff: “Langer’s pastrami sandwich,” followed by a tantalizing description that would make any reader want to eat there immediately. Masterful.

Jeff Miller, writer

A post shared by Jonathan Gold (@the_thejgold) on

Jonathan Gold’s Five Rules For Dining In Los Angeles may have just been an Instagram post, but the short-and-sweet post has evidence of all of his best work: he’s not just telling truths about food, he’s telling the story of the city he lives in. He’s talking not just in general terms, but — if you knew the scene well enough — about certain restaurants; it’s like we all belonged in the same club knowing that that rule was about Baroo.

Gold wasn’t just a food writer, he was a Los Angeles writer. How anyone will know where to eat anymore is a mystery.

Caroline Pardilla, writer

Do you remember the week when you suddenly realized that club DJs had become exponentially more important than the musicians who made the records they played, or the day when everyone decided that bacon belonged in dessert? This is the Cocktail Moment in Los Angeles, the moment when the appletini is finally replaced by a well-made Jack Rose, and the Jack and Coke by a properly made old-fashioned, when people started to realize that the $40 vodka endorsed by the famous rappers didn’t taste any better than the $4 stuff from the back shelf of Trader Joe’s. In some of the best restaurants in town now, the bartender may be as well-known as the chef and even more creative; it is no longer considered odd even in places like Sona and Anisette to accompany your meal with carefully made cocktails instead of wine.

In this excerpt from The New Cocktailians, published in LA Weekly back in 2009, Gold showed that he knew how to write about cocktails, once a restaurant menu’s most overlooked drink option. What does he know about cocktails? I wondered, not in a pooh-poohing way. I was genuinely curious about his Pulitzer Prize-winning take. Because when Gold shined a spotlight on LA’s cocktails, bars, and bartenders — and even hosted an event showcasing them — it all truly felt legitimized.

Mona Holmes, Eater LA Reporter

In a lot of ways I think food is starting to take the place in culture that rock and roll took 30 years ago.

As a former music writer, I couldn’t agree more with Jonathan’s comparison between LA’s food community and rock and roll. It’s been well-documented that there was an air of excitement around rock and roll in the 1980s, and the current food world has that same intensity of never wanting to miss out on anything new. Food writing is the new music liner notes, where Angelenos obsess over how a particular restaurant came to be, and end up playing/eating it over and over again. Gold amped up that level of excitement with his writing and passion about food in Los Angeles.

Matthew Kang, Eater LA Editor

Today, we examine xian bing, dough disks about the size and weight of a shuffleboard puck, tawny brown, slightly domed, mottled on the surface with a pebbly pattern that resembles Chinese characters from across the room, but up close looks more like Braille...

But we know why we’re here. And as promised, xian bing are hot when you pick them up, finger-scorchingly hot, like a potato snatched straight from the embers, and the texture, although you sense a faint crackliness, is thin, warm and pliable, like skin. The menu warns you that it’s hot, and the waitress warns you that it’s hot, and the woman at the next table warns you, too, but there is probably nothing that can prepare you for the act of biting into a too-hot xian bing, when a jet of pressurized soup, as volatile as the steam from Old Faithful, arcs over your shoulder and drips harmlessly down the plate glass behind you.

Gold had a way of relating the specific kind of experience a diner would have at a restaurant, and I love this passage in his review of Beijing Pie House. His intros were like virtuoso pop songs, starting with a hook, “slightly domed, mottled on the surface,” before finishing with a coup de grace. Everything about the final description was vintage Gold: the scorching soup, the warnings from fellow diners and staff, the sheer terror of trying to eat a simple meat pie. No one described the experience of eating a thing better than Jonathan Gold, and this review is the perfect example.