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The Gateway and the Gatekeeper: In Memory of Jonathan Gold

How the late Los Angeles food critic showed new ways to eat and preserved traditions on his boundless quest for culinary discovery

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You knew when you were reading a Jonathan Gold restaurant review, because, well, you were in it.

You were the one marveling at the intense depth of the bloody clam ceviche at the Guatemalan hole-in-the-wall right next to an auto body shop on Pico Boulevard. You were the one rendered speechless by the doro wat you had at a busy restaurant on the small stretch of Fairfax Avenue known as Little Ethiopia. You were the one in El Monte, California, headed eastbound on Garvey Avenue past the Rosemead Boulevard intersection in search of the purest Hanoi-style pho in a sea of neighborhood Vietnamese restaurants that hewed closer to the tastes of Southern Vietnam.

Los Angeles is an imposing monolith of a city, segmented into a vast network of pocket communities that would presumably stretch out to infinity if it weren’t for the Pacific Ocean and San Gabriel Mountains. It is a city of immigrants uniquely shaped by housing policies and the ambitious Interstate Highway System of the postwar era, which facilitated white flight from urban centers and firmly established the decentralized, often racially segregated communities that make up L.A. to this day. Over decades, those communities would develop singular identities and find commonalities with similarly singular neighbors. One could spend a lifetime trying to decipher the codes of L.A.’s myriad cultural hubs and not come close to scratching the surface. The superficiality of Hollywood provides a dominant myth for the rest of the world to latch on to in prescribing the L.A. condition, but there is no one true Los Angeles. Perhaps the closest we’ve ever gotten to finding that core is the vision of L.A. through the eyes, ears, and stomach of Jonathan Gold.

Gold’s use of second-person perspective was one of the most compelling narrative devices of the past half-century. Under his employ, an otherwise nauseating and presumptuous method of storytelling became an optimistic, open-hearted gesture to readers: There are life-changing experiences in L.A. within reach, and many are much, much closer than you’d think. It’s not to say Gold didn’t inspire a legion of imitators; it’s that the second person might as well be literary fugu—without a wealth of knowledge, precision, experience, and a certain dexterity in execution, it can be fatal. Gold wielded the second person less as an authoritarian and more as an altruistic spirit. Reading one of his reviews was like reading a dispatch penned by your future self—someone hopefully more aware, more curious, more empathetic, and more insatiable than the person you are today. But we’ve reached the end of the transmission. Gold, the Pulitzer Prize–winning Los Angeles food writer and one of the most prescient cultural critics of our time, died on Saturday at the age of 57. The cause of death was pancreatic cancer, an illness diagnosed only less than a month prior to his passing.

Gold’s origin story is well documented. Born and raised in L.A., he was a classical music nerd whose world was flipped upside down at a punk rock show in his adolescence. He immersed himself in that tidal wave of cultural subversion, developing not only an eye for it (in his time as a music writer, he wrote the definitive N.W.A cover story and was often found in the studio with Dr. Dre as a fly on the wall during L.A.’s gangsta rap revolution), but a mind that could articulate its merits. In his early 20s, he fought the drudgery of his proofreading job by exploring the lengths of Pico Boulevard; his goal was simple: eat at every restaurant along that 15-mile stretch from downtown all the way to the Santa Monica coast. In Gold’s seminal Los Angeles dining guide, Counter Intelligence, published in 2000, he makes the significance of the endeavor plain: There on Pico, amid the endless procession of hyper-regional specialties from cultures all over the globe, is where he learned how to eat.

Today, his haphazard quest in youth seems at odds with the modern age, where life can often feel like one grand curation. Of course, Gold, as a critic of world renown, had as much to do with that as anyone in the city. Counter Intelligence, his award-winning reviews, and the annual ranking of best restaurants he begrudgingly compiled for L.A. Weekly and the Los Angeles Times were, at best, a starter kit to explore a city’s environs past the imaginary lines that separate neighborhoods. Less compelling was the game of vicarious culinary bingo that his guides unintentionally inspire, something that bears resemblance to the tensions the late Anthony Bourdain felt in producing his acclaimed travel shows.

“I like the idea of inspiring or encouraging people to get a passport and go have their own adventures,” Bourdain told Popula in February. “I’m a little worried when I bump into people, and it happens a lot—‘We went to Vietnam, and we went to all the places you went.’ … But on the other hand, you know, I much prefer people who just showed up in Paris and found their own way without any particular itinerary, who left themselves open to things happening.”

Nearly two decades earlier, in the introduction to Counter Intelligence, Gold alluded to that rewarding sense of disorientation that can be had all across L.A.

“The most authentic Los Angeles experiences tend to involve a mild sense of dislocation, of tripping into a rabbit hole and popping up in some wholly unexpected location,” he wrote. “The greatest Los Angeles cooking, real Los Angeles cooking, has first a sense of wonder about it, and only then a sense of place, because the place it has a sense of is likely to be somewhere else entirely.”

There is a striking visual in City of Gold, a 2015 documentary about Gold and his influence on Los Angeles writ large. A camera tracks the inside of his home; as it climbs up the stairs, so, too, it seems, does an impossibly tall cascade of books. Impossibly tall. Gold himself had estimated there to be upward of 5,000 food-related books in his home, most for the purposes of research. That commitment made Gold revered in Los Angeles; it wasn’t just his prodigious flavor memory, but his hard-earned fluency across practically every conceivable culture within Los Angeles. He was a notorious procrastinator who drove all of his editors to madness, but through his writing, and through the depiction of him in the documentary, one gets the sense that it’s in those ambient moments on the freeway in his Dodge pickup, or in his home reading about indigenous uses of hagfish, that the cultural web of the city respun in his mind anew.

So much of Gold’s occupation involved drawing bridges, creating equivalencies that could properly convey the context of the people, the stories, and the communities he was hoping to share with the city. Gold denied Los Angeles’s high-end dining the preferential treatment it would have gotten in any other city, which not only broadened Gold’s purview but changed the parameters of his purpose entirely. His reviews were ethnographies in miniature.

Gold’s favorite pho in Los Angeles was from a now-defunct restaurant called Pho Minh, which was, of course, conveniently located deep inside a dingy, two-story strip mall in South El Monte otherwise occupied by a salon, a beauty supply store, a Russian piano academy, and an immigration-services office. Gold looked past its setting and found something essential. “Its aesthetic, applied retrospectively, becomes the standard the other restaurants all fail to live up to,” he wrote in 2008. “Is Pho Minh the equivalent of Bob’s doughnuts, Mozza’s pizza or Philippe’s French dip? I submit that it is.” It didn’t take long before my friends and I were regulars, before we’d befriended the owner, before he’d show up to our parties. Eric, the chef and owner, was a young college dropout who happened upon a magical recipe, with dreams of running a restaurant business that could support his family. And with one L.A. Weekly write-up, his wish nearly came true. But Gold wasn’t god; even his most glowing enthusiasms didn’t ensure long-term success. Bob’s doughnuts, Pizzeria Mozza, Philippe’s—all three of those iconic L.A. destinations remain in business; Pho Minh closed down less than two years after the L.A. Weekly story was published.

However, simply giving these restaurants a chance to be seen by the world outside their communities was often more than could’ve been asked for. Gold was an early champion of the San Gabriel Valley, a network of suburban enclaves that, for the most part, house majority-Asian populations that have moved eastward en masse since the 1970s from the more centralized Chinatown, roughly 10 miles west. In Counter Intelligence, he dubbed the region “among the most remarkable restaurant communities in the world.” In the two decades since, the landscape has shifted drastically, doubling down on its position as China away from China. Valley Boulevard is a 25-mile expanse that runs from the fringes of downtown L.A. to the borders of Orange County heading east; a completist restaurant survey of that stretch, à la Gold’s Pico excursion, would be damn near impossible. Despite that, his desire to document as much of the SGV as he could never relented.

In early April, Gold waxed poetic about Nature Pagoda, a tiny, unassuming San Gabriel restaurant that specializes in Cantonese clay pot rice; it was a place I used to frequent back in high school, which was mere blocks away from the establishment. I couldn’t help but laugh when it was published; Gold had undoubtedly eaten at Nature Pagoda dozens of times over before the review. There was no imperative for him to write about it when he did. After nearly two decades of reading Gold’s reviews, it became easier to trace the rhythms and motivations of his coverage. The Nature Pagoda review felt like a one for me, one for you proposition. I knew something big was on the horizon. Sure enough, the following week brought Gold’s incendiary review of Majordomo, the recent flagship restaurant from Momofuku’s David Chang, the most famous contemporary chef in America (whose Dave Chang Show is distributed on the Ringer Podcast Network).

Every native Angeleno who has read Gold has their favorite siren song, the one review that made them drop everything and assemble an army. For me, it was his review of Bludso’s, a tiny barbecue shack in Compton. In time, I, too, would feel the deep satisfaction of describing the elementality of barbecue and its ritualistic process, but as a novice, Gold’s lurid prose appealed to my teenage gluttony on a visceral level: “At Bludso’s there is only bloodlust, smoke and salt, the need to pry the dripping brisket out of the heat-warped foam container, to feel the meat and the juice and the ribbons of fat slide down your throat like liquid, each slice generating the desire for the next, until the container is empty and you feel a bit like an anaconda that has unwisely decided to engulf a pangolin,” he wrote. My friends and I couldn’t get into a car fast enough.

We jammed ourselves into a ’90s Mercedes-Benz and headed south on the 710. We listened to Lil Wayne and Frank Sinatra. We parked in the gravelly lot and greeted a few of the workers out on break sitting in padded office chairs in the shade. The 500-gallon offset smoker was branded with a Dallas Cowboys decal. We walked in and greeted Kevin Bludso, whose barbecue recipes are generations old, brought westward from his family in Corsicana, Texas. We ordered the Texas Sampler, which had a little bit of everything—chicken, pork ribs, brisket, sausage, rib tips—which was entirely too much. Collard greens, mac and cheese, banana pudding with Nilla wafers, we wanted all of it, and it was all better than we could’ve hoped for. There were only three functional stools in the shop, so we opted to eat in the car with the air conditioning on. We were catatonic by the time we realized the car wouldn’t start up again. We popped the hood; the employees on break got up from their office chairs and walked toward us. “Y’all need a jump?” one asked. “Should’ve gotten a Toyota,” another chimed in, with a thick drawl that squeezed the syllables in Toyota to rhyme with coyote. “Them things last forever.” We laughed, they laughed. We thanked them profusely, and vowed to return soon. We made another run not two weeks later.

I think about our meal at Bludso’s from time to time. I think about my friend who sat beside me in the Mercedes, and how the hospitality we’d received in the Bludso’s parking lot had snapped his ambitions into focus. He’s a cook now, too, trying his best to pay it forward in his community. Gold often talked about a “hospitality gene” that is triggered in dining settings, where social dynamics are inherently nurturing and lines of communication are more open than they would be in other situations. Cooking is a form of storytelling. It’s one thing to understand that; it’s another to actually venture out and take in the stories that are waiting to be told. Gold was both the gateway and the gatekeeper; he offered a push in the right direction and a vote of confidence. For many Angelenos, that’s all we needed to dive headlong into the rabbit holes of the city ourselves.

Jonathan Gold was our Robin Hood in suspenders, ensuring the multifaceted stories of immigrant culture were never buried beneath Los Angeles’s dominant narrative. His words have changed countless lives and preserved aspects of cuisine that would have been threatened had he not shone a light. It’s heartbreaking to know that there are thousands upon thousands of food establishments within L.A.’s city limits that will never get the opportunity to be seen through the prism of Gold’s discernment. But at the same time, his authoritative standing as the Belly of Los Angeles was never really the point. The vision of Gold’s true L.A. doesn’t belong to any one person. In our collective memory are thousands of artifacts he’s bestowed to the city over the span of four decades. He’s given us all we need to move forward.