general reviews

City of Gold (2015)

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.



I am lazy. I can cook, but given the choice, I don’t. That means either I eat sad microwave dinners, or I go out to eat, and eat too much. That has been catching up to me, and I had to do something out of desperation. I wanted to get those Zone delivery meals, where they  cook everything and measure it out and do it to a certain nutritional profile, and then deliver them every day. I think if I was given three pre-portioned meals a day and told to eat just that, I’d be fine.

The big problem with this is that most Zone delivery things cost roughly as much as my mortgage. They also usually use their own delivery people, which means they will 100% get lost or not be able to get in my building. (Case in point: Amazon Logistics always fucks up deliveries here.) And some of the food delivery things have some flexibility with getting less than 21 meals a week, but some don’t.

I thought about Blue Apron, since they advertise constantly, and a bunch of people won’t shut the fuck up about them. But those involve cooking, and they’re more for two people, and my wife doesn’t eat. So that was out.

I finally found Freshly, which seemed to fit the bill. They delivered with FedEx, packed in ice. They have meal plans of 6, 9, 12, or 21 meals a week, which you pick from their rotating menu. They list ingredients and nutritional information. And their web site did not look that impossible to use.

I tried this out with the 9-meal plan. I did not need breakfast, since I have oatmeal each day. I also left some dead space for weekends or going out for lunch once in the week. 9 meals, including shipping, was $99.

First, packaging was interesting. The meals came in a cardboard box, which was lined with some padded stuff which is actually recycled jean denim, wrapped in brown paper. Then inside that were alternating packs of white plastic containing a frozen gel, along with the individual meal trays. Each meal tray was in a cardboard sleeve with nutritional info, then was a standard black plastic bottom/clear plastic wrap sealed top.

The food was all made with minimal ingredients, no preservatives. I generally don’t care about that either way, but it was all fresh, not frozen. There was zero prep involved: poke holes in the top, nuke for two minutes, done. I plated them after cooking, but that’s it. No flavor packets or mixing or anything else. It’s just prepared food in a plastic tray.

The meals I had ranged from pretty decent to excellent. Each one was protein-centric, with mostly carbs from vegetables and no sugar or starches. The best meal was a Lebanese meatball dish with spinach, chickpeas, tahini, and raisins. I would have easily eaten nine of those. There was also a beef provencal with brussels sprouts, and I absolutely hate brussels sprouts and I ate all of them. The first meal I ate was the most meh, a paleo toasted almond chicken. I wasn’t entirely into the coating, but even there, the chicken was perfectly done inside and not dry or knuckly or weird.

As far as ordering, their web site lets you choose what you’re going to get a week in advance. You can skip a week or throttle up/down from your chosen plan if you need to. If you did nothing, you’d get the same stuff as last week. It looks like it would be fairly easy to cancel the account if I needed to bail completely. (There’s a link at the bottom of the subscription settings page, so it’s not completely buried, or one of those things where you have to sit on hold for an hour.)

The one bummer about the whole experience is that the food expires fast. I got my meals on Thursday, and they were all marked best by Monday, and the weekend of eating out was in the middle of that. Their web site says you can freeze meals, but is really dodgy about it, saying some freeze better than others, but no specifics, and no instructions on the best way to thaw them. I froze two of the meals (a chili, and an asian steak) and they were not as on point as the rest of them, but were as decent as an average TV dinner. There’s no real way around this, other than maybe two deliveries a week, or knowing what freezes well and planning on that.

Other super minor gripe is there was no FedEx tracking number. That’s a big deal for me because every delivery person fucks things up, even though I am home all day, and it’s nice to feed the number into a delivery status app.

I ended up losing 3.3 pounds last week. I generally only lose weight from diet. I don’t subscribe to any belief on fad stuff like paleo or gluten-free or no-GMO or any of that. You eat more than you burn, you gain weight. That said, I also walked 36 miles last week, so there’s that. But I think having controlled portions to prevent me from gorging, and not having any bread or empty carbs helped most.

And the Amway part of the post: If you’re interested in trying this, go here: Like I said, it’s not exactly cheap, and it’s not available coast-to-coast, either. But it’s been good for me so far.



So what do you eat now?

One of the problems with losing weight is that everyone, especially people from back home, will ask me “so what do you eat now?” I think most people expect that I stopped eating sticks of butter and switched to eating sticks of margarine and that made me magically drop 60 pounds. I think this phenomenon scrapes upon an issue of mine with unhealthy eating: the fact that my “default” cuisine is junk, because I have such a limited palete, and most of the food I’ve eaten as an adult was purchased from a drive-thru, because I don’t know any better.

I was a picky eater as a kid. I had a huge list of things I would not eat, and many of these carry over to today. I knew kids who were much worse – I knew a kid that would only eat Oscar-Mayer bologona, and any attempt to sneak in some Eckridge or another brand would cause him to have a fit. And I guess pretty much every kid brought up by the current nanny nation has a huge list of food allergies and limitations – seems like everyone is allergic to wheat, dairy-intolerant, and unable to go near peanut products or processed sugar. (Good luck ever eating in Indiana, btw, where the closest thing you’ll find to a vegan meal is the big bacon cheddar sandwich at Wendy’s.) I did have a period of extreme allergies where some genius in my family suddenly said I was allergic to chocolate, and I spent a year or two with my family substituting out my Easter and Christmas candy and probably subconsciously damaging me mentally (only to find out a year or two later I was actually allergic to penicillin.)

But here’s the thing – was I a picky eater because I was a picky eater, or because my cuisine was so limited, and I was never introduced to far-out stuff? Anthony Bourdain often talks of his first culinary experience as a kid, visiting France and eating a fresh oyster, and suddenly having his world turned upside-down, forever destined to do weird shit like eat ox testicles in backwater Cambodian former Khmer Rouge refugee camps. I led a much more white-bread existence, food-wise. For most of my childhood, my mom stayed at home, and did the cooking. I’m not going to say she was a good or a bad cook – actually, she later worked as a cook, and there were certain dishes she would make that I wish I could have now. But we weren’t rolling in money as a kid. And we lived in Indiana. So most of our menu was derived from Kroger’s general and more economical staples: meatloaf, frozen pot pies, canned vegetables, shake-and-bake, casseroles. Spices other than chili powder and A1 steak sauce were pretty much foreign to me. Wonder bread was a way of life. We didn’t venture far out of the box, and if it wasn’t in the Better Homes and Gardens cookbook, it probably wasn’t at our kitchen table.

One strange deviation from this rule was asparagus. When we lived in Edwardsburg, Michigan, there was a farm across the street from us, and for some reason, asparagus grew wild right on the fence line between Redfield Road and this large industrial farmland. I think they must have grown asparagus there, and never tilled up the land right at the fenceline, and the stuff kept growing back like weeds. My dad used to go over there and pluck out a bunch of the stuff, and then my mom would cook it in a pressure cooker and cover it in butter. Most of our vegetable intake was canned corn, canned green beans, canned mixed vegetables, and the occasional head of iceberg lettuce broken up into a salad with no other vegetables and maybe some bacon bits. I still love asparagus, although the advent of the microwave makes it way easier to cook.

A few limitations shaped our menu, some making sense, and some more random. When you have a limited budget and three kids constantly screaming bloody murder and doing crazy shit like we always did, it’s hard to spend time perfecting your duck confit, or piece together anything that involves hours of immaculately dicing and prepping 17 different ingredients. That’s when the “throw three things in a bowl and bake for 40 minutes at 375” comes in handy. There’s also the economical advantage of buying a pound of hamburger, a box of hamburger helper, and a tube of ready-bake rolls versus buying all of the crap you need to make a good Coq Au Vin and three side dishes. And the local Kroger or IGA did not have much more than the basics, especially in the pre-foodie 70s. I don’t know if Elkhart had any old-school butchers or farmer’s markets or other produce shops where once could piece together all of the ingredients in four or five shopping trips, but good luck doing that with three kids in tow.

I also have no particular ethnic background that shaped my family’s food definitions. I guess my grandmother on my mom’s side made a lot of good food, but it was just your basic meat-and-potatoes stuff: turkey, gravy, roast beef, ham. She was from Poland and the rest of my grandparents were from Austria, but there were no specific dishes from the motherland that I remember. It wasn’t like my grandparents were off the boat from China/Japan/India/whatever and my mom would live to whip up Chinese/Japanese/Indian/whateverian food like her mom used to make. When we had time and money to eat fancy, and we weren’t already going over the hill and through the woods to grandmother’s house, that usually meant a butterball turkey and some Stove Top Stuffing.

When we did go out, I think the most ethnic food I ever ate was Pizza Hut. It wasn’t like Elkhart had an Ethiopian district or Koreatown where we could partake in a variety of food. And even if they did, I don’t think my parents had the patience to deal with bringing me or my sisters to a place full of unknowns. The reason McDonald’s is burned into my system so much was because the cheeseburger happy meal was an easy go-to for me. Maybe Italian was one ethnic derivative we had in northern Indiana – places like Columbo’s, that were mostly pizza joints but would dish up some good pasta or a chicken parm. But I don’t think I had Chinese food until I was in college, and I know that Indian, Thai, and even Russian food was something I didn’t learn to enjoy until after I moved to New York.

So when I suddenly decided to get in shape and stop eating Quarter Pounders for every meal, I was faced with the situation that I didn’t know what to eat instead. Eating just vegetables seemed impossible to me; it was like making Kool-Aid without water. Even if I ate 19 pounds of the most complicated salad possible, I still would feel like I was missing the meat course. And avoiding fried food was absolutely befuddling to me. Weight watchers kept me focused on point values instead of complicated rules, and I was able to figure out substitutions and what would make me get through the day without crashing. But I still can’t explain to people what I eat instead. I didn’t lose weight by suddenly only eating Ugandan traditional dietary staples or by switching french fries with only purple-colored fruits, or anything like that.

I still can’t eat like Bourdain. I still don’t like olives, mushrooms, most seafood, or anything that still has eyes. But I somewhat understand the cult of spicy foods now, and I think I’m beyond being fixated on long-passed fast food chains like Hot-N-Now and Burger Chef as my salvation. I still can’t explain what I do eat in under a thousand words, though.


Food indecision

I get into this phase maybe once or twice a year when I simply cannot pick out what food to eat. I mean, the clock strikes noon, I am famished, got plenty of cash on me, and it’s not shitting rain or hot enough to liquify the sidewalk or anything else, but I simply cannot decide on what kind of food I want to eat. I can’t even think of a genre, or a direction to walk. And it goes on like this, meal after meal, until I am continuously more and more fatigued with things because I haven’t had a good meal in days. Yes, I’ve had a meal, and I don’t exactly look like a UNICEF kid, it’s just I can’t find something that makes me happy. And this is probably a bigger metaphor on life, because I also can’t get any writing done, find a book I can really stick with reading, and so on. I’m sure there’s a medication for this. And I’m sure one of it’s 7492 side effects are that it causes loss of appetite.

Anyway, yesterday we went out and went to Flowers Cafe, which is a sort of hippie-esque diner a few blocks over on Grand. It’s not a hippie place in that they serve wheat grass and tofu hot dogs, it’s just a deli, but with lots of retro flower-power type murals on the walls. It’s not too overdone, and they make a good reuben, so we order there a lot. And for whatever reason, we went there for breakfast on Saturday, and I got two eggs on a roll with bacon and cheese, and it completely kicked this food neurosis thing in the ass. It was a really good sandwich, and I loved it, and I wish I could get another one right now, except they’re closed, and I just ate dinner anyway.

After a day of walking around with Sarah and her friend Dre, we ended up seeing The Devil Wears Prada, which was funny, but probably not too relatable to those who don’t live here. We also went to this diner afterward called Big Daddy’s, which was the typical shit-on-the-walls genre, but not corporate, and with the typical menu where, instead of just saying “hamburger,” it says “Daddy-o Burger.” I just wanted a hot dog, and was presented with a giant plate that had pretty much an entire pig’s entrails stuffed and tied off into a hotdog. It was excellent, but it was also like half my body weight in food. Anyway, it’s a good place to crash if you’re just north of union square. I wish it was closer to the office, but then I’d probably need some paramedics to cut me out of my apartment in a few months.

Speaking of, I was on this food nutso thing the other day, and it popped into my head that I really wanted to run for the border and hit a Taco Bell. It usually happens once a year, but there are none by my new digs (there’s actually an old one, boarded up, with the tri-stripe awning still there and the logo spraypainted out) so I did the research and found the closest one was a half mile from the office, over on West 4th. Me and a couple of coworkers planned it out like a jailbreak, since we didn’t want to spend our entire lunch break trying to get over there. And Taco Bell has a very short halflife, before it congeals and turns cold and completely inedible. (And forget about microwaving that shit.) So we decided to cut over on the subway, one stop, hit the KFC/Taco Bell, and put in our giant order for all of the other people who wanted in but were too chickenshit to make the run. We got back in 30 minutes flat, ate, and then spent the afternoon wishing for napdom, hoping the gurgling in our guts wouldn’t go bad. ‘Beller’s regret. But I was happy.

There’s something in the sauce of that Mexican Pizza that reminds me so much of when I used to work there. And when I was thinking about it, I realized – it’s been twenty damn years since the summer I spent working the drive-thru at the ‘Bell, saving up for one of those new-fangled CD players and a dual exhaust for my Camaro. Shit, I remember when I was twenty, so it makes me feel even worse to remember something twenty years ago. It’s so weird though, that tomato sauce always reminds me of buying food when I went off-shift, leaving with a big bag of taco supremes and nachos and riding home on my ten-speed. When I first had my car, I dumped an order of those cinnamon crispas under the front seat, and spent months trying to vacuum up that sugar-cinnamon dust from the crevices of the carpet. Of all of the cooking smells mixed together in the back line of a Taco Bell, the most overpowering one was the crispa smell, maybe because it was the only sweet one. I don’t think they sell those anymore, but if they did, it would be an instant time machine for me.

Crap. It’s pouring rain outside. I have to go to work tomorrow, which sucks. Then I get the 4th off. Then a 3-day week. Whole Foods had nitrite-free uncured hotdogs, and they actually taste pretty much the same, so that’s my little homage to the whole July 4th, picnic, barbeque, drunken fireworks, whatever thing. That’s all.