Monday, July 30, 2018

True Gold

http://www.citylab.com; July 23, 2018


Hello Everyone:

It is a very tropical Monday and Blogger is hiding out somewhere air conditioned.  Monday also means a Twitter rant from the White House.  This time, the object of the rant is Special Counsul Robert Mueller.  Things must be getting desparate for the White House because the tweets are getting more shrill.  The Special Counsul is coming up against a bit of deadline.  The midterm elections are less. 100 days away--if you have not registered to vote, stop reading and go to USA.gov and register now--the Mueller team will need to back off, lest they be accused of influencing the election.  Alright, shall we move on?

On July 21, the City of Los Angeles lost true gold. Pulitzer Prize-winning Los Angeles Times food critic Jonathan Gold passed away from pancreatic cancer.  He was true gold because there was not your typical food snob critic rather, he championed the food trucks, mini-mall restaurants, and the cafés that would normally be bypassed by other food writers in favor of the fancier places.  Yours Truly first encountered Mr. Gold through his columns for the local alternative newspaper L.A. Weekly.  They were unpretentious musings over a meal at some local restaurant that no one had ever heard.  One place caught Blogger's attention was the late lamented Magic Carpet.  It was a local Yemeni restaurant with very generous (emphasis on generous) delectable food, served with fresh hot pita.  Blogger would not of heard it if it were not for Mr. Gold's glowing review.

More than just write reviews, Jonathan Gold showed his loyal readers and everyone else a side of Los Angeles that defied the usual clichés attached to the city: unending sprawl, eternal sunshine, the glitz and glamour of Hollywood.  Laura Bliss writes in her tribute to Mr. Gold, "No One Looked at Los Angeles Like Jonathan Gold," "These words are used so often as the city's wide-angle establishing shot that it's easy not to inspect closer.  If you drive past quickly, the strip malls and palm trees like a blur."  Mr. Gold stopped, parked, and went inside the strip mall restaurants and cafés

Food was the way Mr. Gold filtered his hometown.  Food was his way of putting Los Angeles in the spotlight and helped "redefine the way the rest of talk, write, and reflect on it."

Jonathan Gold's decades of writing restaurant reviews for the Weekly and the Times was cherished for two main reasons.  Ms. Bliss explains, 

First, though he wrote magnificent reviews of the city's finest dining estsblishments, a tour of East Side taco trucks was the multi-course tasting he preferred.  Before it was cool.  Gold focused on holes-in-the-wall more than haute cuisine.  Second, similar to Anthony Bourdain's culinary globe-trotting [citylab.com; June 8, 2018; date accessed July 30, 2018],  Gold's writing was never just about food.  It was about the people and places that made food worth eating--as good a way to understand the extraordinarily multi-ethnic city as any other.

Jonathan Gold also inspired a new way to travel through L.A. beyond the typical manner.  Allow Bligger to be blunt, L.A. traffic sucks.  It is a soul sucking experience for even the hardiest of souls.  The challenge is finding the fastest most direct way to get to your destination. Mr. Gold was not a competitor, he took the long way, wandering through side streets, keeping a sharp eye open, a "food flâneur."  Reviewing a restaurant never meant just going to that restaurant.  On the way to sample the latest goat stew often meant multiple stops.

Peter Meehan, the former editor of the now-defunct food magazine Lucky Peach, told the Times (latimes.com; July 21, 2018; date accessed July 30, 2018) about a spontaneous detour his longtime friend and dining companion took off the freeway, on the way to the latest French restaurant.  Mr. Meehan said,

Mid-ride, he swerved, across four lanes of traffic and took us to eat chicken neck tacos in East L.A..... We were sitting there, gnawing at bones, next to a family whose kids were doing their homework while eating those tacos, and he was beaming.  He loved the entirety of the landscape of L.A....

Focusing on the places he visited was another way Mr. Gold show some love.  In one of his best known columns for the L.A. Weekly, "Gold described the year he spent after college trying to eat his way down Pico Boulevard."  Pico is very unglamorous east-west artery that runs from the downtown fashion district to the ocean.  Laura Bliss describes, "... a perfect subject for him because it was (and is) relatively overlooked, compared to neighboring Sunset, La Brea, and Wilshire boulevards."

Jonathan Gold wrote in a 1998 column (laweekly.com; Sept. 23, 2018; date accessed July 23, 2018),

No glossy magazine has ever suggested Pico as an emerging hot street; no real estate ad has ever described a house as Pico-adjacent...

He argued that the dodgy nature was precisely the reason why Pico was he epicenter of the L.A. food scene.  He argued that "it allowed a staggering array of cuisines to take root:"

Pico is home to Valentino, which specializes in preparing customized Italian food for millionaires, and Oaxacan restaurants so redolent of the developing world that you half expect to see strived chickens scratching around the floor; to Billingsley's, a steak house, which could have been transplanted whole from Crawfordville, Indiana, and to the Arsenal, steak house decorated with medieval weaponry; to chai. Mexican restaurants, artist-hangout Mexican restaurants of such stunning authenticity that you're surprised not to stumble outside into a bright Guadalajara sun.  Green and Scandinavian delis still flourish on stretches of Pico that haven't been Greek or Scandinavian since the Eisenhower administration.  (Ibid)

"Mexican restaurants" is not a monolithic term.  Ms. Bliss explains, "That is four types of Mexican restaurants, with the Oaxacan variety earning its own evocative sentence."  Pico Boulevard, in the hands of Mr. Gold, transcended its dodgy image to become "a string of beads, each with a particular character when inspected up close."

Little wonder Mr. Gold was known for his protectiveness of his hometown and its culinary cornucopia.  He championed restaurants, not trolled them.  When out-of-town critics missed the mark, Mr. Gold was quick to let them know (latimes.com; Jan. 7, 2017; date accessed July 30, 2018).  Yes, he was proud of L.A. but not to the point of boosterism.  Boosterism requires a gauzy filter to obscure the unattractive details.  Laura Bliss writes, "The Pico Boulevard essay ends with Gold disappointed with s joint he'd once loved and wondering if he'd romanticized it in his youth."  Seven years prior, he wrote honestly and painstakely about watching his Koreatowm neighborhood put itself back together after the 1992 riots:

Most of the supermarkets are open again--my neighborhood was luckier than those a few miles south--and shoppers no longer fistfight in the aisles over chickens.  The restaurants are mostly open again too--the several burned tended to be unluckily close to liquor stores or discount outlets--though the atmosphere these days is far from merry.  Monday night I went to one of my favorite Korean restaurants, Yee Joh, close to the burned-out complexes on Hoover and Alvarado.... Yee Joh was emptier than usual, brightly lit and fairly grim: The Korean-American community doesn't have much to smile about this week.  The food was good as ever, but I almost felt like crying, and they seemed relieved to see us go. (laweekly.com; Sept. 23, 2018)

Los Angeles is recovering from the heartbreak of losing Jonathan Gold.  Local critic Norman Klein once said that Los Angeles is the "most photographed and least remembered city in the world" (books.google.com; date accessed July 30, 2018). The endless pavement grid and palm trees are part of the familiar backdrop. Jonathan Gold brought us in for a close-up.  If you want to truly learn about a city, stop at a food truck or at a local diner.  Bon appetite.