Jonathan Gold, RIP

Illustration by Mark Stivers

News of Pulitzer prize-winning food critic Jonathan Gold’s death at 57 came across my Twitter feed on Saturday as I sobered up from a birthday party of day drinking and gorging on fatty brisket at Urban Roots Brewery. What, first Bourdain, and now Jonathan, too? I did a quick health check to make sure food maven Ruth Reichl was still ok, and she was, sort of, having tweeted: “I have never been sadder. Jonathan Gold is gone.”

If Bourdain was the guy who made the global feel local, and taught us all about the commonalities that emerge across a shared table, no matter how exotic or far-flung, Gold was the first to show that, at least in boring, bland SoCal, the local had gone spectacularly global.

If you follow food writing in any way, you know that Gold started as an LA-based music writer with an insatiable curiosity and appetite for exploring the mind-bending cornucopia of dining that had emerged in the ugly strip malls and drab, unsung neighborhoods of Southern California. He prevailed upon his LA Weekly editor to let him turn this sideline into a vocation, and debuted his Counter Intelligence column, devoted to cheap and “ethnic” eats, in that publication in 1986. He moved from place to place in LA, bouncing back and forth between LA Weekly, the LA Times and Gourmet Magazine, and ultimately serving as the food critic for the LA Times from 2012 until his death.

In a classic piece of his, from 1998, he reminisces about a time in his early 20s, when he attempted to eat at every restaurant on Pico Boulevard, a 15-mile street that bisects the city from east to west, from downtown LA to Santa Monica. He described it thusly, in a way that could sum up his philosophy of dining: “No glossy magazine has every suggested Pico as an emerging hot street … But precisely because Pico is so unremarked, because it is left alone like old lawn furniture moldering away in the side yard of a suburban house, it is at the center of entry-level capitalism in Los Angeles, and one of the most vital food streets in the world.”

At the time he started Counter Intelligence, or even 13 years later, at the time the above words were published, the idea that Los Angeles was host to the best food in the world was laughable. But in the current food culture and climate, which he was instrumental in creating, no one is laughing at that idea. It is mostly accepted as true.

Ten years ago, a good friend of mine was living north of Los Angeles, and she introduced me to the writing of Gold and the delights of the San Gabriel Valley, an area to the east of LA, home to some 1.5 million people, the majority of whom are of Hispanic and Asian descent. She took me to Noodle Express 101 to blow my mind with the beef roll, described by Gold as a “steroidal composition of fried Chinese pancakes, cilantro, and great fistfuls of thinly sliced meat wetted with sweet bean sauce and formed into something like a Chinese burrito the size of your arm.”

On his recommendation, we fretfully waited in line at Luscious Dumplings, praying the pan-fried pork dumplings (“magnificent things, flattened hemispheres blackened to a luminous, carbon edged crunch…They exploded in the mouth with a blistering, onion-scented pop, a primal flood of juice, of heat, of flavor.”) would not run out before we got to order. Those dumplings remain my avowed deathbed meal if I ever get to choose one. We had adventures with unbearably searing chilies at the Silverlake Thai mecca Jitlada, which his praise built singlehandedly into one of the culinary icons of the city (upon hearing of his demise, the chef, Jazz Singsanong tweeted: “I only have one god and my god is Jonathan Gold"); he even got me to plan a trip to Bakersfield, of all places, to share a communal meal that started with cold strips of beef tongue in vinaigrette passed amongst table neighbors at a Basque restaurant that’s over a 100 years old.

Some of the most memorable meals of my life were courtesy of his writings, and luckily for all of us, we have our own, much smaller versions of Pico, and San Gabriel, and Thai Town here in Sacramento that are ripe for exploring. We’ve got Little Saigon, and the Mexican tortas shops, taco trucks and carnicerias of Franklin, and the Korean spots out by the Sac 6 drive-in, and Hmong, Vietnamese, Lao and Chinese New Year festivals, and Afghani, Iraqi, and Persian restaurants in the Arden Area, to just name a few highlights. Now more than ever, we need to get to know our immigrant neighbors, and sampling their food is an easy in. We even have our own version of a beef roll here in Sacramento, the one at Yang’s Noodles which, though much smaller than my arm, can rival that of Noodle Express 101. I’ll be hoisting one this weekend in tribute to Gold.