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What Will Los Angeles Do Without Jonathan Gold?

The vision of the city that he championed — an equitable, multicultural, multiracial democracy — is one we must fight for

2015 Sundance Film Festival Portraits - Day 5 Photo by Larry Busacca/Getty Images

When I found out Jonathan Gold had died, I was in the midst of a Saturday night dinner with friends at 101 Noodle Express, my fingers greasy from devouring a gargantuan beef roll, layers of pastry wrapped around thin slices of meat that were dressed with a sweet sauce mixed with a bass note of umami, the crisp texture and rich flavor making each member of the table moan this is so good between second and third ravenous bites. 101 Noodle Express is located on Valley Boulevard in Alhambra, in a strip mall anchored by Golden Mile Bowling, and across the street from a fancifully Old West-themed shopping complex home to local chains like 168 Market and Lee’s Sandwiches. That night, it was packed with families, and our group of queer people dressed to go contra dancing in Pasadena a few miles and a whole world away was both slightly out of place and perfectly at home.

We weren’t here because of a Jonathan Gold review — some of our group knew Alhambra well, and were deeply devoted to the beef rolls and noodle soup — but I knew he must have written one, even before I spotted the LA Weekly plaques on the wall. My stomach settled in a state of profound satisfaction even as my chest tightened with grief, and the only thing my brain could do with the horrible dissonance was search out what he’d written about the place I was in.

In a 2009 review, Gold described these beef rolls as “steroidal,” a better word than I ever could have hoped to find, “big enough to feed a family of four but ... also oddly delicate; it may taste of crisped pastry and clean oil but also projects the muscular minerality of the braised meat.” The precision and poetry of his writing — crisped pastry and muscular minerality — conjured the pleasure of a dish I had just enjoyed through the equal pleasure of language. The review identified beef rolls as having come from Shandong; around the table earlier that night, friends had discussed with pride and delight more recent articles identifying them as a Los Angeles invention — a beef roll discourse occupying a place in media cleared by Gold’s curiosity. The last line, “A meal at 101 Noodle without a beef roll is as unthinkable as a lunch at Langer’s without pastrami,” links two Los Angeles cuisines rarely seen as kindred, and knits together the city across lines of race, culture, geography, and time.

Jonathan Gold was a restaurant critic, one whose roving intellect uncovered a new story about food in America, one about everyday, often immigrant-run restaurants, not just fine dining. That alone made him revolutionary. But Los Angeles is not in mourning because of the loss of a food-writing pioneer. The second-largest city in America just lost a secular saint. It’s mourning a welcoming guide and a listening ear, a curious palate and an endless appetite, a man who saw the very best of the city, and told the rest of America that a place written off by the national media as vapid, soulless, and sun-dazed was actually the country’s beating heart.

Until very recently the national portrait of Los Angeles was that of a deluded, status-obsessed celebrity machine, with the remnants of a dark-sided counterculture slouching behind, hemmed in by a car-choked suburban malaise. “Los Angeles dining culture” was reduced to neurosis, restaurants with good food and great movie stars, and a burger scarfed while sitting in five lanes of traffic.

Ironically, this terrible reputation is largely the work of the city’s very own homegrown narrative-making machine, a phenomenon captured best by the film Los Angeles Plays Itself, a witty, angry documentary, built from archival footage, about the misuse of the city’s space and erasure of its people on the silver screen. Los Angeles, with its perfect weather and unstable ground, stood in for the best-and-worst binary of American culture, embodied in the beautiful film noir darkness of the Hollywood Hills and the yuppie excess of Bel Air and Malibu, where modernist masterpieces became villains’ lairs and the entire city was gleefully destroyed by increasingly absurd disasters. And in every era, with precious few exceptions, the people living in this imaginary Los Angeles were as blindingly white as those making and greenlighting the movies.

No wonder journalists and tastemakers arrived to investigate the lotus eaters — and maybe note the sushi was good.

This narrative isn’t dead — my family in Philadelphia remains suspicious — but it’s rarer and rarer to see it advanced in national media coverage, and those who so much as imply Los Angeles is a land of white people on weird diets will find themselves thoroughly roasted. Now, Los Angeles is more likely to be covered (and sold by the tourism board) as a vibrant, fractured metropolis of endless diversity and very, very good food. It seems impossible or ridiculous, but the inciting spark for this narrative shift is the decades of tireless, open-hearted, curious restaurant criticism by Jonathan Gold.

I’ve seen this happen in real time, because I’ve had the odd privilege of moving to Los Angeles twice. I first arrived in 2005 to work on the lowest rungs in dusty corners of Hollywood, 22 years old, semi-closeted, extremely naive, and so ignorant about the city I was shocked to discover it was surrounded by mountains. To orient myself, I drove the lengths of the boulevards, Sunset and Santa Monica and Wilshire; I ate mole and tom yum goong and kebabs. I kept trying to explain to friends who didn’t live here that every cliche was true, Rodeo Drive existed and I saw celebrities at brunch, but there was also so much else no one ever talked about that was so much better.

As a newly arrived resident who could barely afford groceries, no one told me more about Los Angeles than Jonathan Gold, a sentiment echoed all over Twitter and Instagram in the wake of his death. Before smartphones, there could be no better introductory kit to the city than a Thomas Guide and a copy of Counter Intelligence. The obsessively complete map of the city’s roadways and the obsessively complete list of essential restaurants would get you exactly where you needed to go to find the Los Angeles that would feel like home. For people from Los Angeles, especially writers Gold mentored, the sentiment is even fiercer — he saw the city they knew and loved, the city outsiders ignored as they took another kick at a nonexistent Southern California.

When I returned in 2015, following my girlfriend’s job, the food obsession fostered by Los Angeles had become my career, and in addition to reading Gold, I could orient myself throughout Los Angeles and Orange County with criticism by Besha Rodell, Patric Kuh, Gustavo Arellano, and Edwin Goei, not to mention a wealth of reporting by food writers inspired by Gold’s work. And food had become a thing. In 2005, the Hollywood farmers market had been the place to spot celebrities; in 2015, the Santa Monica farmers market was the spot to hang with chefs. I made new friends over beers and steaming bowls of dak galbi cooked before our eyes at Mapo Galbi, where, as instructed, we said yes to whatever the servers recommended go in with our chicken, including cheese, and reconnected with old friends over a salty turnip omelet and sauteed morning glory stems at Ruen Pair, whose taste I recognized from a decade ago, bringing back a past meal and past self.

All of these meals were inspired or informed by a Jonathan Gold review; everyone I met in the city, especially people my age, revered his writing. In an age of endless opinions about restaurants, millennials in this city revered the local paper’s critic, a man a generation older than they were. I’ve lived in several other cities big and small over the past decade, and I’ve never seen anything like it.

And this, I think, gets at a larger truth about Gold’s importance, and what exactly he saw when he began to eat his way down Pico Boulevard, which he described as “at the center of entry-level capitalism in central Los Angeles, and one of the most vital food streets in the world.” Those entering capitalism were immigrants from El Salvador and Guatemala and Mexico and Korea and Iran, mixing pupuserias and taquerias and other mom-and-pops with steakhouses built in the 1950s for homesick Iowans and palatial Greek restaurants from a long-scattered diaspora. Pico Boulevard was the entry level for a new wave of Americans who would transform how we all eat.

The late 1960s and 1970s saw a profound change in our cuisine, not just because San Francisco hippies got into figs and wine, but because the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965 ushered in a transformative immigration boom, while refugees arrived from places American imperialism helped destabilize — a difficult and painful story often reduced to “diversity!” That historic migration has given rise to contemporary California, a prosperous, progressive, profoundly unequal state that is also the best possible proving ground we have for building a truly equitable, multicultural, multiracial democracy.

And the man who built Los Angeles’s civic pride on the bedrock of this new America, while never erasing the communities here much longer, has died at a time when that Los Angeles, and that America, is under threat. For starters, the loss of a newspaper titan comes at a bleak time for Los Angeles media. With Gold’s passing, there will be no critic at all to chronicle one of the most important eras of Los Angeles dining, because its local outlets have been gutted. The institution that nurtured Gold, where he won his Pulitzer, the LA Weekly, was acquired by a literal secret cabal of investors, whose first move was to decimate the staff in a brutal series of firings former Editor-in-Chief Mara Shalhoup called “the Red Wedding.” And the Los Angeles Times has new ownership, after a hard-fought union organizing battle that exposed widespread pay inequities and came in the face of ominous planned reorganizations and cuts by the former owner, Tronc. Gold’s dedication to the power of local journalism, to specific stories of people who make our food, who consulted books about Chengdu when writing about Chengdu Taste and whose favorite word in a review was “might,” is a light we needed and one we will sorely miss.

But it’s not just the institutions Gold wrote for that are endangered, or just escaped a terrible fate — the Los Angeles he championed is imperiled, from forces within and without the city, whether it’s wealthy developers and landlords terraforming block after block with high-end “neighborhood” restaurant spaces, or ICE’s war on immigrants, including separating parents from children, masterminded in part by one of Santa Monica’s own. It’s a tragedy that contemporary, democratic Los Angeles is getting its due just as the forces of whiteness, of capital, of resentment and fear conspire to suppress it.

At the moment, Los Angeles is the city that best embodies the world my generation grew up in, shaped by fusion and hip-hop, white flight and the internet, tacos and kimchi, debt and ambition, capitalism with no entry level and real estate out of reach — a rough-edged, enduring beacon and a city very much worth fighting for, and which has always been fought for, in the battle for inclusion and civil rights. No one understood better than Jonathan Gold that the battle was (often covertly) waged in the kitchen and at the table. In the walls dividing Los Angeles, Gold’s work revealed door after door after door, all of them leading to tables laden with food embodying perspectives and traditions from every corner of the world, and corners of America too often forgotten, where we could get to know each other, over shared meals, as neighbors.

For a generation scrambling to pay rent and carve out any time for leisure, he offered a model of democratic, communal dining pleasure, where all of us can gather, share a perfect meal, and still afford to split the bill. And he championed our ambition, especially on the part of a new wave of chefs, many of whom are immigrants or children of immigrants, who are seeking to forge a new path beyond the white-male-dominated fine dining world, exemplified in Gold’s mentorship of the chef Kris Yenbamroong, whose first restaurant the critic helped save from closure.

I’m rarely grateful to my smartphone these days, but at the moment, heartsick and angry with death, I’m finding comfort in the fact that I can take Jonathan Gold’s reviews wherever I go. I met him briefly, once, just long enough to shake his hand; my grieving isn’t the personal loss weathered by so many friends and colleagues. But over my years in Los Angeles, I’ve taken quiet pleasure in sitting in a restaurant and searching its name with “Jonathan Gold,” and, while reading his review, imagining what he might think of the scene before me. Every meal shared with his words has been richer for it; none of us in Los Angeles could ask for a better companion at the table.

Meghan McCarron is Eater’s special correspondent.

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