When Jonathan Gold has been your food-writing mentor for over a decade, you really get to know the man—and what makes his insatiable stomach tick.
But if you weren't lucky enough to write him a dumb email rife with grammatical errors at the age of 15 and unassertively ask if he will take you under his wing, you can just watch City of Gold and become just as familiar with the dude. The full-length documentary—directed by Laura Gabbert—profiles my Pulitzer Prize-winning, long lost weird uncle of sorts in his neverending quest to properly show off the real LA through the prism of food.
And for once, somebody got it right.
The movie represents a side of LA that keeps us staunch native Angelenos proud, and it will make anybody who doesn't live here catch the next flight to LAX just to eat all of our spicy fish kidney Thai curries, almond-salsa-topped tacos, and Szechuan peppercorn-crusted fried lamb. I caught up with the Belly of Los Angeles on the day before the big premiere to see how he is feeling about everything—and more importantly, what food and drink he would pair with his own movie.
MUNCHIES: Hi, Jonathan. How are you? Jonathan: They just brought me some fried morning glory from Jitlada, so I'm good.
Nice. I'm trying to figure out what snack or dish to enjoy with your movie tomorrow. What do you recommend? That's hard. This fried morning glory salad is really good, but you won't find this in a movie theater anywhere. I would recommend eating afterward, for sure. That's the only way, since even if you eat before watching the movie, it will probably make you hungry after watching.
At our press lunch, Bricia [Lopez] of Guelaguetza only served fried grasshoppers, tortillas, and salsa for the first half hour, so you either made grasshopper tacos or you would starve. It turns out that everybody was really hungry but not that hungry—but how can you do better than chapulines before City of Gold?
How about to drink? The first thing that comes to my mind is mezcal, of course.
From one awkward writer person to another, what was it like to open up in front of the camera as much as you did? The process was foreign to me, but it happened over a period of almost five years. Laura would show up almost unannounced once a week with somebody holding a camera and just ride around in my truck with me. Her style is really vérité so she doesn't ask questions or have agendas really.
It was awkward. You are eating something at a restaurant and you have a big fuzzy microphone over your head and somebody wants nothing more than for you to say witty things. After a while, I sort of got used to it and almost forgot about the microphone and the camera.
If only writers were as witty in real life as they were on paper, am I right? I wasn't trying to be witty or super intelligent. I was just sorta, like, talking. What we have as writers—and this is a translation from the French saying—is the wit of the staircase. This is when you are walking out of the room and you realize what you should have said but forgot to. When you are a writer, you get to go back and say the cool thing, but when you are talking, sometimes you don't.
The journey of getting to a [restaurant] is just as important as what it's like when you get there. In a way, the meal almost becomes the same as driving across the city. The meal has a journey and the meal is a narrative.
Laura shot several hundred hours of film. There were probably around 50 to 60 restaurants that we went to, so there was a lot of editing. A lot of the beauty in the film is the editing. The thing that surprised me the most was not going to restaurants and seeing cool food and chefs—which is what you would expect—but the spaces in between, where they found the heron on the banks of the LA River, or a kid doing ollies, or the breakdancing in Chinatown.
Or the sheer amount of time behind the wheel of my truck, which is so much the experience of LA. You've been on the other seat. You drive, you talk, maybe there is some music on, maybe there are some companionable silences, and maybe you make a weird turn somewhere in a neighborhood you don't quite know.
My favorite scene is the one where I'm stuck in rush-hour traffic on the Harbor freeway with the Funkadelic going on. It's beautiful. You're looking at these beautiful hills and the lights are changing and the lights of the traffic, and the music is great—it is our Los Angeles version of Zen. The journey of getting to a [restaurant] is just as important as what it's like when you get there. In a way, the meal almost becomes the same as driving across the city. The meal has a journey and the meal is a narrative.
Spoken like a true, romantic, native Angeleno. How many miles does your truck have on it nowadays? Oh, I don't know. About 250,000?
How did you choose the restaurants to feature in your film? We must have filmed seven times at Jitlada. It is a place I love and where people are comfortable. Also, you know Jazz [Singnasong] will be colorful in one of 17 different ways. Obviously, I love Guelaguetza, too. They are all just places that I like going to. I didn't really know a lot of the stories behind the restaurant owners until this film, too.
Some of the restaurants that were featured have closed since the scenes were shot. How do you cope with your favorite restaurants closing? I'm really bummed about it. I mean, sometimes you drive past a place that used to be one of your favorite spots, and it is almost like when you remember when you were a kid and lost a tooth. Remember when you kept exploring that empty space in your mouth with your tongue and couldn't believe it's not there anymore? It is kind of like that.
I'm not a cultural anthropologist—I write about taco stands and fancy French restaurants to try to get people less afraid of their neighbors and to live in their entire city instead of sticking to their one part of town.
Are there any scenes or restaurants that didn't make the final cut that you would like to give a shout-out to right now? Yes. Definitely Pho Minh. There were some great cooking scenes at Soban, which is a place I totally love. 101 Noodle Express's scene was great, too.
Sometimes it is not even places but people. Like Lupe's #2 in East LA when Tuchie died; it was devastating. She represented that part of town to me like nobody else did. She was super salty and her hands were almost deformed from making burritos on the grill. She was great.
City of Gold has the best portrayal of the real LA that I have ever seen. Was that hard to pull off? That was the most important thing that we wanted to do, to show people the LA that wasn't so much technicolor Hollywood or the stylized "everybody has a gun" LA—you know, the Boyz n the Hood stuff? As much as I love those movies, not everybody here is a movie star or criminal. Almost all of us are in-between. I'm not a cultural anthropologist—I write about taco stands and fancy French restaurants to try to get people less afraid of their neighbors and to live in their entire city instead of sticking to their one part of town.
There is a scene in the movie that explores the importance of the food critic in the age of Yelp. What are your thoughts on the subject? I don't care about having an edge over Yelp. I'm never going to be able to get my review up before Yelp does. There is no way. It is not possible. I like to think that what I have is more valuable than Yelp. I never pretend to be an expert on anything. I don't write as somebody who knows every single thing about Oaxacan cooking, Korean cooking, Mexican cooking, or Chinese cooking. What I write about is the process about coming to that place where you think you understand something.
Yelp is really useful in certain ways but it is useful as a collection of data points rather than raw material that hasn't been synthesized. If you were going to eat at restaurants depending on how many Yelp stars they got—you're not going to eat very well.
That being said, if there is a chili burger place in Bell Gardens being reviewed by a teenager living in Bell Gardens, that's not useless. It's not irrelevant information. It is actually kind of great because it is something that has never been available before. Now, if you are looking at it to figure out where to eat? It's not so hot.
My absolute favorite scene in the movie is the one of you rocking the fuck out on your cello with your punk band as a teenager. Is there a chance of a reunion show anytime soon? None whatsoever. That was my high school band. We played shows for a year, and played some fun shows, but I've got to say that that is the one scene that makes me sink down in my seat. I wish they found some footage of my other punk band, Tank Burial. We played with Social Distortion once.
The movie explores your punk rock roots and shows how the music genre paved the way for your writing style. Does it still play a strong role? The whole thing about punk rock is that it is the combination of having really, really rigorous rules but it also having the courage to just blow something up for the pleasure of blowing something up. I don't do that super often anymore, but the knowledge that I learned is kind of great. I relish the anarchy of this city—it is a creative anarchy. Almost everybody of a certain age who did anything in LA was into the punk scene. The people who didn't do that were doing something that wasn't quite as interesting.
However, they may be richer than both you and me.
Thanks for speaking with me.