Whatever you may think you know about the city of Los Angeles, you may find your assumptions challenged by City of Gold. No, it is not (as the title suggests) a movie about the lifestyles of the rich and famous. It’s a fascinating foodie doc about Jonathan Gold, esteemed food critic for the Los Angeles Times, whose insightful writing about the culinary scene in L.A. has earned him a Pulitzer Prize for Journalism.
Gold has not won this accolade by choosing the most exquisite verbiage to describe plates of decadent delights. He’s not that kind of food writer. What Gold does is hit the streets in his bottle-green pickup truck, cruising strip malls, ethnic neighborhoods, vendor carts, and food trucks all across the sprawl that is L.A. in search of undiscovered eating experiences. And discover them he does, incredible treasures in the most unexpected places, mostly run by immigrant families who make up the vast cultural diversity of the city and its many, many burbs. More of an explorer than a food critic, Gold writes insightful pieces about understanding cultures through the medium of food.
As Gabbert follows Gold on his rounds, we get a vivid glimpse of the many worlds that make up L.A.: from Grand Central Market to Marisco’s Jalisco food truck; from Jitlada’s Thai cuisine to Little Ethiopia to Chengdu Szechuan.
Director Laura Gabbert starts her film with an apt quote from the late and much-lauded food memoirist, M. F. K. Fisher: “First we eat. Then we do everything else.” Which is certainly one thing we as humans all have in common. And our commonality is very much at the heart of Gold’s work, to whom we are then introduced, pausing thoughtfully over the empty screen of his laptop before plunging into his next review.
A somewhat gnomish-looking character (with long, cottony hair left over from a past life playing electric cello in a punk band), Gold never tries to go out in disguise to keep his identity secret. But he does make reservations under a variety of assumed names—so it’s not until he actually walks in the door that restaurateurs know it’s him.
Many proprietors of the eateries he champions (often in hole-in-the-wall storefronts you wouldn’t look at twice while driving by) credit him with saving their businesses. Says one observer, Gold brings “value to restaurants and experiences that other people weren’t writing about.”
As Gabbert follows Gold on his rounds, we get a vivid glimpse of the many worlds that make up L.A.: from Grand Central Market to Marisco’s Jalisco food truck; from Jitlada’s Thai cuisine to Little Ethiopia to Chengdu Szechuan. Gold stops for fried grasshoppers at a Oaxacan cafe in Koreatown, hot dogs at Earle’s Wieners, a vendor cart in South Central, and refers to a location in passing as “that Romanian Chinese Islamic place.” Small wonder that when Gold shows up, chefs eagerly bring out tastes of their grandmother’s cherished recipes for him to try.
Gold is modest about his work (which he calls “exploring the mosaic of the city on somebody else’s dime”), and wry about his methods. (He doesn’t take notes when he eats, he says, because “it would be like taking notes during sex.”) But he takes the work seriously and knows his stuff. As one interviewee says, “I don’t know any Korean who knows more about Korean food than Jonathan Gold.”
While watching this movie, I kept thinking of Blade Runner, and its futuristic vision of a Third World L.A. as a steaming stew pot of Asians, Latinos and replicants all jockeying for position. (Paranoia Alert: Blade Runner’s future world was set in—ulp—2019!) Gabbert presents a much more promising vision, with Gold spearheading the way toward a rational yet passionate embrace of cultural diversity.
At a UCLA commencement address at the end of the movie, Gold speaks about the liveliness of the local cultural scene, constantly reinventing itself with new foods and ideas to share. “We are all strangers together,” says Gold.
This is what community is. And when ignorant voices in society talk about closing borders, building walls, and homogenizing our cultural experience, this is what we lose.
CITY OF GOLD
*** (out of four) With Jonathan Gold. A film by Laura Gabbert. A Sundance Selects release. Rated R. 91 minutes.