When nobody else could, Jonathan Gold helped me understand and then love LA—one restaurant at a time

He was a one-man Michelin guide, his tastes were so diplomatic and wide-ranging it was impossible not to trust him

Published July 23, 2018 6:00PM (EDT)

Jonathan Gold (Getty/Larry Busacca)
Jonathan Gold (Getty/Larry Busacca)

You don't think you want Korean short rib stew at 11 a.m. on a 103-degree day in Los Angeles, when your calves are dirt-streaked and Charlie-horsing, after hiking Runyon Canyon and hiking back to your car and grinding through crosstown traffic on the wrong surface road (Wilton!), but when you read Jonathan Gold's review of Sun Nong Dan — out loud, to those others ravenous in the car — and find yourself pausing for a breath mid-sentence (hikes of sentences, his), when you hear yourself saying things like "a shimmering, pearlescent white that is pretty much the opposite of what French chefs are taught in cooking school" or "chaw of kneecap," you realize it's exactly what you want. You all do. Gold's review promises that "If your grandmother loves you, she might prepare galbi jjim on a Sunday afternoon." And if promises don't convince you, there are soliloquies:

The Galbi Jjim at Sun Nong Dan is Hendrix shredding a Bob Dylan song or David Choe slapping paint onto a wall, all the sensations of the dish run through a distortion pedal and cranked up to 10. You'll be getting the dish extra-spicy (although the waiter will try to talk you out of it), and the amount of garlic that will seep out of your pores afterward is almost surreal.

It is almost surreal to think about eating in Los Angeles without Jonathan Gold. He died at 57 of pancreatic cancer on Saturday, and I imagine that I was not the only person to wake up to the news and quietly weep in her coffee.

I was in my apartment at the time and my mind went to the last restaurant I'd been to: La Casita Mexicana. "Where are you taking me?" my husband had asked as I drove east, beyond downtown, over the spittle of Los Angeles River, through factories and train yards I forget exist in this city. There was street parking on Gage in front of an orangely-lit space; inside, amid dates and family dinners, a sestet of elderly women drank tamarind margaritas and sang happy birthday. Finally, I gave my husband the answer he'd probably been expecting: "A Jonathan Gold restaurant we haven't been to."

Like all our most revered artists, Gold's name had become a metonym for his oeuvre. He was a one-man Michelin, whose tastes were so diplomatic and wide-ranging, his sentences so savvy yet chummy, it was impossible not to trust his judgment. In round-ups of pho or dim sum, reviews and write-ups, Counter Culture columns and essays of the sort that garner a Pulitzer, he toured readers through the culinary gems of Los Angeles.

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Admittedly that tour was glitziest on Jonathan Gold's 101 Best Restaurants, the list that annually appeared in the Los Angeles Times, where he was the newspaper's star journalist. When I moved to Los Angeles a couple years ago, that was the first recommendation I received. If I liked food, I was told, I needed to look at that list.  

What no one said was you'll come for the writing more than the recommendations. That you'll fill afternoons reading reviews aloud with your out-of-town visitors, giddied by Gold's signature second-person and gusts of autobiography and hyperdelic allusions and descriptors as much, if not more, than the prospect of dinner. Today it is easier than ever to choose what you want to eat. Pizza by a James Beard honoree? Nancy Silverton's Mozza is a delivery-fee and a click away. But Gold reminded readers that eating was about more than just eating.

A culture warrior and literary stylist as virtuosic and garrulous as Lester Bangs, Gold's topic was food but his subject matter was nothing short of community, how eating expresses identity, and how being in the world is integral to being. As Robin Abcarian describes him in a tribute in the LA Times, Gold "transcended the role of restaurant critic to become a modern-day ethnographer. His gift was his ability to explain the tribes of this place to each other by celebrating the things they cook and eat."

As a transplant, it would've been easy to feel tribeless. In a city where I knew no one, Gold's writing made him a friend. There is nothing inherently inviting about a list (one need only visit San Pellegrino's annual inventory to remember that). But unmoored, a little stir-crazy in an apartment barely big enough for a kitchen table, intimidated by the sweep of this city where I knew no one, Gold's 101 became my map and history book.

READ MORE: I hate cooking with my mom, but she can't make fried chicken to save her life, so that's what I make

He revealed, for instance, that he'd had his first martini at Musso & Franks's. That Spago — after all these years — was still good. He pointed me to Grand Central Market, for Thai boat noodles and carnitas served in palm-size tortillas. He sent me up Melrose and over to 3rd, down Cesar Chavez and onto Virgil, into neighborhoods I wouldn't have otherwise ventured; he filled my calendar, persuading me that two months from now, at a 5:30 slot, the only time available, I needed to be eating at Bestia, specifically the spinach gnochetti. These days, his influences extends to my kitchen: a batch of Gjelina garlic confit sits in my fridge right now; a casserole dish that held my attempt at recreating the green lasagna from Angelini Osteria soaks in the sink.

Sharing this, I'll admit, makes me a little nervous. I am a food-lover as uncomfortable saying gourmand as foodie, an aesthete who likes a side of privacy with her indulgence. I'm uncomfortable sharing photographs of food — served to or prepared by me — to an audience much broader than my mother.

Often this makes me feel quaint or ludditish, to eat without an Instagram, especially in LA, where doughnuts come shaped like panda bears or your seat at Majordomo is kitty-corner from Chris Rock. In our age of acquisitive foodie-ism, where FOMO can set in like botulism, the way one eats can start to seem like a sort of aggressive board game, where one racks up menus and Snaps, Likes and followers, where one is crossing names off a list.

That's what's ironic about Gold's legacy, of course. Despite his ascension in this impersonal era of listicles, his lasting impact was wholly personal: his ability to introduce Angelenos (old and new) to their neighbors through pupusareias and omakase-yas, to remind us that food is always a channel to the personal. The eater, the preparer, even the sloe-eyed server at Gjelina.  

When you take Gold's recommendation and eat galbi jjim when 99 percent of the time you don't eat meat, you remember, once again, that what you think you know about your tastes is a mystery even to you.

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By JoAnna Novak

JoAnna Novak is a writer of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. Her debut novel, "I Must Have You," was published in 2017.

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Criticism Food Culture. Foodways Jonathan Gold La Times Obituary Restaurant Critic Restaurants