The Art of Eating
Published Feb 29, 2008 8:00 AM
UCLA alumnus Jonathan Gold is the first food critic to ever win a Pulitzer Prize.
Copyright ©Photo by Anne Fishbein
Jonathan Gold '82 has mastered the landscape of Los Angeles eateries, from the fine dining of Spago to the deliciously trendy offerings of Pizzeria Mozza to the authentic experiences of just about every little-known ethnic joint in the county. His book, Counter Intelligence: Where to Eat in the Real Los Angeles, a compilation of his columns for the LA Weekly, is the most authoritative source on L.A. cuisine. And, last spring, Gold became the first food critic to win a Pulitzer Prize.
There's just one problem when trying to grab lunch in Westwood Village with L.A.'s culinary connoisseur: He can't think of anywhere to go. "There is sort of a disconnect between the words 'favorite restaurant' and 'Westwood,' " he says. "But I'll think about it."
Gold settles on Flame, a Persian restaurant a few blocks south of Wilshire Boulevard, a corridor that he says makes up for the Village's lack of choices — there's Ambala Dhaba for Indian food, Sunnin for Lebanese and Junior's Deli serving up Jewish soups and meats. This will be Gold's first of several visits before he reviews Flame, which after the meal he determines offers a common Persian menu executed to near perfection.
He typically frequents a restaurant under review five times over the course of a month to get an in-depth sense of what the restaurant is about; in one notable case, he ate at the Nice Time Deli in San Gabriel 17 times.
"It was a Taiwanese place. I absolutely hated the food," he recalls. "There is a certain sweet, smoky taste that is very off-putting — almost like liquid cigarette smoke. They like mucousy texture. There is something called bitter melon, which is like cancer medicine; you eat it and your eyes pop out. ... But I recognized that they were cooking it exactly how people liked it."
Gold's taste is curious and critical, sensitive and incisive. Take, for example, this portion of "Home of the Porno Burrito," one of 10 columns that earned Gold the Pulitzer.
"The potato taco may be El Atacor's enduring glory, but its fame in the online world comes mostly from its Super Burrito, a foil-wrapped construction the size and girth of your forearm, which drapes over a paper plate like a giant, oozing sea cucumber or, perhaps more to the point, like an appendage of John Holmes," he wrote. "It is impossible to look at a Super Burrito without marveling at the flaccid, masculine mass of the thing. It is probably even harder to bite into it without laughing."
Food criticism was not on the menu for a guy who spent his UCLA days studying music history, playing cello and dreaming of being a conductor. "I was a music geek," Gold says. "I practically lived in my practice room. In fact, one quarter I did live in my practice room. There were a few of us who lived there — those who had to practice 10 hours a day or die."
After graduating, Gold, who has also eaten and written for California, the Los Angeles Times and Gourmet, was a bored proofreader for the legal newspaper the Daily Journal when he elected to eat his way west along Pico from downtown Los Angeles to Century City, stopping at every restaurant at least once, in lieu of graduate school or any other recognizable ambition. Soon after he was writing about music for the Weekly, and then he took over the paper's biannual restaurant guide. (Gold's wife, Laurie Ochoa, is the editor.)
Gold is admittedly no chef, nor even much of a gourmet. But in the variety of the foods he has awakened readers to — American and Armenian, Cambodian and Chilean, Ethiopian and Eritrean, and every other ethnic cuisine around — he has found the voice of the city.
"I love Los Angeles, and I love the way the cultures come together, and there are worse ways than food to explore that," he says.