So far, Jonathan Gold is the only food critic to win a Pulitzer Prize. Nothing in Laura Gabbert’s admiring documentary City of Gold can quite match Gold’s tasty prose, occasionally heard here in whispery-soft voiceover. But there’s a surprise on the menu. That’s Los Angeles itself. For as Gold, in search of fresh culinary treasures, travels the hidden corners of a too-familiar city in his green Dodge Ram 1500, we get to fall in love with L.A. again.
Like a plus-sized, gastronomic Don Quixote, Gold had previously embarked on an impossible quest to dine at every hole-in-the-wall and ethnic food truck along the 15-mile Pico Boulevard from downtown to Santa Monica. Now, as food critic for the Los Angeles Times, he continues to uncover family-owned restaurants in economically-depressed areas. And in so doing he reveals the striking diversity of the city’s wide-ranging food culture. Listen up, Academy. If only Oscar voters had Gold’s keen eye maybe our film culture wouldn’t be so blandly colorless.
Look, I’m not saying all Gold’s food choices are suitable for general audiences. Sauteed grasshoppers, slimy hagfish and tacos stuffed with cow eyes are an acquired taste. Mark Gold, Jonathan’s environmentalist brother, jokingly quips, “Jonathan’s eating everything I’m trying to save.”
But here’s the thing: Gold, who started out at LA Weekly in 1982 as a proofreader while studying music at UCLA, can write like a jazz maestro when inspiration strikes. It’s not that Gold hasn’t covered the high-end dining scene for such publications as Gourmet and Los Angeles magazines. But from the mid-1980s when he started his “Counter Intelligence” columns, Gold has succeeded best by avoiding expense-account meccas in favor of neighborhood joints run by newly arrived immigrants who don’t always work in the safest parts of the city. A favorable review can have tourists stepping out of their comfort zones and into hidden corners of the City of Angels.
Don’t expect a warts-and-all portrait. Gabbert’s film pays scant attention to Gold’s harsh critical side and the power of his negative reviews. There is reference to his casual approach to deadlines, even when working with Laurie Ocoa, his frequent editor (and also his wife and the mother of their two children). But in essence, City of Gold is a celebration of a critic who helped define a city by what it eats. And at a bargain price. So take notes, and dig in.