City of Gold is a documentary about Pulitzer Prize-winning food critic Jonathan Gold. I’m ambivalent about the current spate of foodie-oriented TV and movies, but this was less of that and more about an interesting and quirky artist, and the real main character was the city of Los Angeles.
One of the main focus points is how Gold is the champion of the off-the-beaten-path restaurants, largely immigrant-focused. It’s a healthy counterpoint to the current post-election culture that has swallowed the news cycle, and the doc shows several examples of how he championed a hole-in-the-wall restaurant and made their business explode. An example was Meals by Genet, a restaurant in Little Ethiopia on Fairfax run by Genet Agonafer. She fled Ethiopia for LA with her young son, and struggled through the usual low-pay food service jobs. Her son, through her support, eventually grew up, went through medical school, and became a doctor. When the space on Fairfax opened, he maxed out every credit card he could find to get her restaurant going. When Gold reviewed it, she could not cook fast enough to handle all the new traffic, and now she’s flourishing because of his nod on the 101 Best Restaurants list he publishes.
There are several stories like this, where he writes about his favorite Thai food, taco trucks, Korean places, and works the Pico strip, eating at every small ethnic restaurant along its length. And that’s why I say LA is the main star here. I’m unapologetically a massive fan of Los Angeles, and wish I would have spent more time than the brief half-year I lived there in 2008. There’s some city planning porn in the doc explaining how LA has multiple city centers, and grows outward from each one. Many people — mostly those who have never spent any time there — decry this sprawl. But it’s a feature, not a bug. It means different parts of the city blossom and grow to provide different experiences for a widely diverse population.
Sure, that sprawl means unending chain restaurants. You’ll find at least 150 McDonald’s chains in LA county. But it means there are so many spaces for weird, eccentric, or authentic food. This is one of the big surprises of the city, and shown well in the film. There are big Zagat-reviewed fancy places in LA, which are all stuck in the 90s. But you can roll into a mini-mall in El Segundo and find mind-blowing food from any country or region of the world, sitting next to a cash-for-gold place.
Gold writes for the LA Times, but the movie shows his ascension through the ranks. He started at the LA Weekly as a proofreader back in the early 80s, when he was studying cello at UCLA. He moved up to music editor, then got into food. There are so many interesting intersecting paths here; he’s got the connections to the food criticism world, and you see Robert Sietsema, Calvin Trillin, Ruth Reichl, and so on. But he’s also a regular on KCRW. He was a champion of the early LA gangsta rap scene, spending time with Snoop Dogg in the studio while he recorded his first album. He played with the post-punk band Overman. He was around for the early 80s punk scene with X and the Germs. And it seems like he’s had a thumb in every little food scene within LA, from the old Jewish delis (he actually worked in Spielberg’s mom’s deli back in college) to food trucks to everything else.
One of the things I liked about the film was showing Gold, how he lived in a house filled with books on every horizontal surface, his close relationship with wife Laurie Ochoa (now entertainment editor at the Times) and his struggles with writer’s block, even though he still publishes 150,000 words a year. He’s a jovial looking guy, with long hair and always with a smile on his face, and it’s humorous to see him pecking at his Macbook at the kitchen table, then wandering off to pick up some random book and not get to a review his editor wanted yesterday. We’ve all been there, but I think the rewarding thing was to see him struggle with it and then at the last second crank out such engrossing and descriptive criticism.
The only sore spot with this film is it really, really made me want to go back to LA. Watching those long pan shots of the strip malls and restaurants of West Hollywood and Koreatown and Culver City and Sawtelle gave me such overwhelming nostalgia for the place. There are things I like about Northern California, but we don’t have city centers like that. We have downtowns surrounded by bedroom communities, and it’s just not the same. Yeah, the traffic sucks, but the traffic here sucks too, and we don’t have 350 days of sunshine a year and such an overwhelming food scene. I really wish I was back, to drive down Pico and look at everything, even if I do just end up at Norm’s at three in the morning, eating pancakes. Great film.