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Tasting Los Angeles: Jonathan and his ‘City of Gold’

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Jonathan Gold in Laura Gabbert’s CITY OF GOLD (Goro Toshima)

It begins with a writer staring at a blank screen. Fingers fidget. Then culinary poetry emerges. Los Angeles Times food critic Jonathan Gold is writing about tacos (again). While his language makes your stomach speak and your mouth water, Gold is not just writing about tacos; he is writing about a way of being. In his prose he captures the philosophy of a new generation of chefs who are drawing from the traditions of their mixed-cultural backgrounds to make something fresh. Gold’s descriptions of disparate flavors and textures create a vividly spicy portrait of Los Angeles.

“Everybody thinks they know what Los Angeles means,” Gold says early on in Laura Gabbert’s documentary City of Gold, describing how visitors to the city believe the image of a sprawling, superficial wasteland that has endured for so long in the popular imagination. This is funny because Jonathan Gold, a native Angeleno who grew up in South Central L.A., has spent most of his adult life getting to know his home town — through his taste buds. The film takes the passenger seat as Gold roams the city’s streets in search of the perfect food. What they find together is a cultural vibrance that is based on diversity.

Jonathan Gold in Laura Gabbert’s CITY OF GOLD
Jonathan Gold in Laura Gabbert’s CITY OF GOLD

Los Angeles is described in the film as a post-modern creation. It didn’t develop as other cities did, from a specific center. Rather, in rhizomatic fashion, it is the product of many centers that spread and became joined. As such, L.A. has always had a stubborn defiance to definition, it is a collection of equally strong personalities all inhabiting the same body. And each personality is a great cook!

The film follows Gold from neighborhood to neighborhood (Little Ethiopia to Tehrangeles) uncovering the mom and pop joints where new immigrants serve the traditional foods of their homelands. Behind each is a story of street-level capitalism, of families risking everything to make it to and in America. Their ability to resist this country’s “melting pot” philosophy is what makes them strong. Contrary to current political debate, which reveals this idea’s endurance, what these immigrants offer, and this is what Gold seems in constant search of, is a celebration of their individuality. They bring literally to the table the secret ingredients of their family traditions.


In the film, Gold says that it is not possible to know Burma by eating Burmese food, but I wonder if that is only partially true. We are porous beings, taking in the world through our mouths. Doesn’t the willingness to share and to participate in the sensual experience of eating have the power to connect distinct communities to one another? The film shows us so many hands preparing so many different kinds of food, how can we not reflect on the generosity that goes into nourishing one another? Gold says you can connect with strangers in a restaurant in a way that you cannot in other settings because of this shared experience. A restaurant is common ground; it is a place where our most basic needs are met.

Jonathan Gold in Laura Gabbert’s CITY OF GOLD
Jonathan Gold in Laura Gabbert’s CITY OF GOLD (Jerry Henry)

Gold is the first food writer to be recognized with the Pulitzer Prize. His subject is food, but what he is really writing about is culture and connection. It’s true, he is on a never-ending search for the best taco, but when he finds it he shares the family history that went into its creation. Gold is trying to gain understanding through taste, sharing this quest with the rest of us and along the way explaining Los Angeles with food.

    Screenings and Events:
  • City of Gold opens in San Francisco at the Embarcadero Center Cinema on Friday, March 25. Jonathan Gold and filmmaker Laura Gabbert will be on hand at the 7:05pm screenings March 25 and 26.
  • Gold and Gabbert will also be in conversation with the San Francisco Chronicle’s Jonathan Kauffman at CUESA’s classroom tent in front the Ferry Building in San Francisco on Saturday, March 26 at noon.
  • Gold and Gabbert will do a Q&A after the screening Saturday, March 26, at 4:15pm at the Smith Rafael Film Center in San Rafael. The film opens at this theater on Friday, March 25.

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