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12 Great Pieces of Food Writing From Jonathan Gold

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From his ode to the most humble banh mi in LA to the launch of the cocktail revolution

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Jonathan Gold Writing
Jonathan Gold writing a review
City of Gold Documentary

When Jonathan Gold was writing for the LA Weekly, he wrote nearly twice as many vignettes and recommendations as he did full-on reviews. Those recommendations came out of a column called “Ask Mr. Gold,” and many of his followers still referred to him as Mr. Gold in his last years. In addition to answering recommendation requests, Jonathan Gold often submitted off-the-cuff first takes on restaurants that had just opened, or supplied condensed articles on single dishes.

The following is a look at some of those shorter pieces, little appetizers of Gold’s wisdom, plucked out of those LA Weekly archives. We’re calling them the nasty bits, and they’re compiled here in no particular order.

Ode to the most humble banh mi in LA

In this brief take on Chinatown Buu Dien, Gold extrapolated one of Vietnamese cuisine’s most beloved dishes, the banh mi. Buu Dien doesn’t carry a big name, it doesn’t have numerous outlets across Southern Calfornia. There’s nothing gourmet about what it serves. His ending descriptor reads like an onslaught:

The crisp yet soft texture of a decent Parisian baguette, the interplay between the herbs, the chiles and the variously textured meats, and most important, the essential schmear of liver pate, whose organy funk binds the sandwich together into complex, multitiered unit of Vietnamese pork whose greatness both exalts and transcends its humble, cheap ingredients.

Gold steps up to the open mic, and it’s about a gastropub

It’s easy to forget that Gold was a music writer before he covered restaurants. Years after this piece was published, it’s now totally weird to see Gold write a mini review in free verse, like a beatnik open mic, talking about Next Door by Josie (which is now Lunetta All Day). Imagine this with a string bass and snapping fingers on a smoke-filled, spot-lit stage. Here’s the opener:

I saw the best chefs of my generation employed by gastropubs; Racer 5, wild game chili, dry-rubbed riblets with their calico slaw dragging themselves through the steel seats at dawn looking for artisanal grits, molasses-glazed bacon, with New Orleans spiced shrimp, beer-and-bacon caramel corn. ‘Yes it is that good,” she says.’

Battle of the burritos

Gold wasn’t quick to criticism or tear down like many other restaurant critics, but he did find glee in poking fun at easy targets, and one of his favorites was San Francisco’s revered Mission burrito, the template of what eventually launched Chipotle into the fast casual stratosphere. Gold had a big bone to pick with SF’s affordable specialty, and the lines still zing after a decade:

Bay Area residents tend to have peculiar ideas about burritos, which they regard as monstrous things wrapped in tinfoil, and filled with what would seem to be the contents of an entire margarita-mill dinner, including grilled meat, rice, beans, guacamole, tomatoes, salsa, sour cream, orange cheese, and probably a lot of other things that neither God nor man ever intended to see the inside of a tortilla

There’s no need for Michelin here

When the famous Michelin Guide arrived in Los Angeles in 2008, Jonathan Gold had some choice words to say. The imperiled guide only lasted a few years before departing the city, and in the nine years since, one could argue that LA’s restaurant scene hit a full-on renaissance. But back in 2008, Gold knew the city’s scene would never mesh with Michelin, and his reaction to that year’s installment is a pretty fiery diss upon the revered guide.

Last year’s inaugural Michelin Guide to Los Angeles restaurants was appalling, ignorant of the way Angelenos eat, reading as if it was put together by a team too timid to venture further than a few minutes from their Beverly Hills hotel. This year’s guide, although it is more or less identical, is just boring...Unless you happen to be a French business traveler terrified of the teeming masses outside your hotel, I see no reason to pay attention to the Los Angeles guide at all.

Ode to a PR legend

Press relations is an often misunderstood, oversized force for big city restaurants and celebrity chefs. It’s largely how the restaurant news sausage gets made in places like LA, Vegas, San Francisco, Chicago, and New York City. PR flacks tend to get left out of stories (by design, their clients are usually the subject of articles), but longtime rep Joan Luther received a short dedication from Gold when she died in 2011. Luther worked with such restaurants as The Brown Derby, Mastro’s, Grill on the Alley, Kate Mantellini, and Bastide:

Luther was the one publicist whose calls you always took — she was probably calling on behalf of one client or another, but you ended up talking about a dozen other things in the course of the ten-minute call: Wolfgang Puck, the Breeders’ Cup, Mayor Riordan, the chiffon cake at the old Brown Derby, a new restaurant (not a client) on the Strip, Lois Dwan, Perino’s, the fried chicken at a place named Hody’s where the Pico Boulevard Roscoe’s is now, and Edna Earle’s Fog Cutter. Luther made you feel as if you were part of a larger continuum, a better, more romantic Los Angeles where green goddess dressing was on every menu and Cary Grant and Humphrey Bogart still roamed the sunbaked streets.

Carnitas in pre-gentrification Highland Park

Gold’s headlines often fused classic novel titles with the food in question, and his headline Pork in the Time of Swine Flu recalled Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s 1985 book. In 2009, well before the boom times of 2017 Highland Park, Gold was on the scene examining the tacos de canasta at Antojitos Chilangos and the carnitas at Metro Balderas. He starts with a full examination of the glories of the Mexican pork specialty, and it’s a magnificent and majestic bit of prose.

Well-made carnitas may be at the center of the genius of the Mexican kitchen, a process evolved to draw the maximum fragrance out of something already inherently fragrant, pork seasoned with itself, and salt, and time. The greatest European charcuterie may draw from the same state of mind, the same minimalist aesthetic, and the same cuts of meat, but carnitas, whose flavor emerges over hours in a bath of its own bubbling lard rather than developing over months in the dark, comes from an even more natural place. Like duck confit, carnitas is both meat and a cipher of meat, only more so. Stripped of the necessities of both portability and preservation, the pork is allowed to reduce like consomme into purest essence of flesh.

Runyon cocktail at the NoMad LA
Runyon cocktail from NoMad LA
Wonho Frank Lee

The launch of the cocktail revolution

Jonathan Gold was on top of LA’s burgeoning cocktail scene back in 2009, when places like The Varnish, Cole’s, Comme Ca, and Copa D’oro were changing the way Angelenos enjoyed drinks. This seminal piece brought a major highlight to bartenders who executed the classics and used LA’s produce bounty to add the city’s own twist to the art of making cocktails. A lot of these bars have either closed or changed in the ensuing years, but it’s still interesting to see Gold chronicle a movement in the making. Now every restaurant and bar is essentially required to have a good cocktail situation. Perhaps no one describes the crowd of Seven Grand in Downtown better:

Seven Grand is a yawning, loud, crowded big-city bar, separated from the street but somehow very much of it, packed with pool-playing lawyers and stubbly art guys, Fitzgeraldian USC students and women who breathe the twin-set look even when they’re wearing leather, office hardasses and visiting businessmen who can’t believe their luck — a pretty good cross-section of people who suspect salvation is sometimes found at the bottom of an empty bourbon glass.

The weirdest throwback dish in LA

Gold had a high appreciation for classic Hollywood haunt Musso & Frank, lauding its strong gin martinis and celebration of old time dishes that haven’t really survived into this century. One of those dishes is the jellied consomme, a wobbly concoction that very few likely order anymore. Gold’s description, as per usual, is spot on:

Not least among these endangered dishes is the jellied consommé, a few ounces of clear broth transformed into a trembly, delicate substance, served in a custom-purposed silver-plate contraption that suspends the aspic above a goblet of crushed ice. The dish, a standard of the country-club set through the 1950s, is an unusually refreshing light lunch, exquisite with a frosted tumbler of lemony iced tea. Before the freeways, before the talkies, before even Prohibition, this is how genteel Los Angeles refreshed itself on hot summer afternoons.

The best food words

Ever thought about which foods words are the most satisfying to say? Gold did in this roundup of ten excellent food words, starting with Italian pasta strozzapeti and meandering to “ovine,” which the critic says food writers don’t use nearly enough. It’s a rare chance to see Gold try and be funny, and it’s mostly successful, especially when he’s making fun of himself. Here’s the entry for pho:

Not only does the more or less proper pronunciation of the Vietnamese noodle soup lend itself to all manner of odd restaurant-name puns - Phở King, Phở Real, Phở Kim II - but you get to sneer at the 90 percent of the population who always get it wrong. Was my first Weekly column on the dish, the one you still see blown up to the size of a billboard on the wall of a Chinatown noodle shop, titled “Friend or Phở?’’ Bite me.

Reviewing a company event

Critics inevitably have to yield to the demands to a publication’s sales team, and it seemed that Gold had a clever way of marketing LA Weekly’s Pancake Breakfast event by reviewing it. Despite the questionable tactic, readers still get to delight in the Goldster’s love of all things pancake, and how the dish format lends itself to endless variety. There’s something almost innocent, even gleeful, in his coverage of a revenue-generating event.

The pancake, of course, is a mutable form, adaptable in infinite ways to all sorts of flavors, textures and compositions. In areas where oven heat is expensive or unreliable, pancakes can be cooked on almost any heated surface, the quickest of all quick breads...

I like pancakes — I’m almost a pancake obsessive. And it’s always been something of a fantasy to be able to try pancakes from around the world side by side, to be able to taste a great haemul paejon while my lips were still sticky from a Du-par’s flapjack. I really hope we do this again next year.

The burrito, explained

One of the things Gold came back to again and again in his career was the burrito, so much so that he offered a primer on burritos back in 2009. His love of LA’s iconic dish, especially in contrast to the terrible ones in San Francisco, knows almost no bounds. He dives deep into LA’s best burritos and the way he breaks down each place is a master class in great food writing:

A burrito is the crackly skinned marvel at Lupe’s #2, filled to order while the tortilla is still on the griddle so that it develops both intense toasted-grain flavor and spurting fumaroles of spicy beef stew if you are so bold as to slide it out of its paper wrapper as you eat. A burrito is the slender, home-style product of Tonia’s, a burrito stand that has been holding down its corner of Pico Rivera for half of forever. A burrito is the suave, lard-scented creation slid out from the barred windows at Al & Bea’s, a burrito so tasty that recently sprung cons squeeze into line behind the uniformed denizens of the police station down the block, and the green-chile salsa is practically a sacrament. A burrito is the fat, oozing block desultorily assembled at the Pico Rivera Lupe’s that may or may not have had a primordial relationship to Lupe’s #2 40 years ago, but not so you’d know it...After midnight, a burrito is the bean-and-cheese specialty of J&S in Montebello, a stand that looks like a relic of the Eisenhower administration.

You want to f*** it

One could argue Jonathan Gold’s greatest single piece of writing was not about a restaurant, or even a dish, but rather about a painting of fruit called Still Life with Lemons, Oranges and a Rose by Francisco du Zurbarán at the Norton Simon museum. The piece originally appeared in Slake Magazine, which is now defunct but available as back issues on Amazon. A few years ago Jonathan Gold did a live reading of his famous article during a Lucky Peach show in Downtown LA. KCRW has a podcast with a full recording of Gold’s reading starting at 10 minutes and 58 seconds. Click on the link here to listen to the late Gold read perhaps his finest piece of food writing ever. Warning, the final line has an explicit word.

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