You wouldn't expect a Pulitzer Prize-winning food critic to take you to the sort of place that's wedged between a 99-cent store and a boarded-up meat market.
But that's exactly where I sat down for lunch with Jonathan Gold — at a downtown Los Angeles eatery called El Parian.
"Are you all OK with goat?" he asks. "We should all get half-orders of the birria — which is basically like a roast goat stew. But if somebody would rather have carne asada — well, I will judge, but I won't judge much," he says with a laugh. (Read his review of the restaurant's birria here.)
In the restaurant world, Jonathan Gold is a heavy-hitter. Get a good review from Gold ... and you've struck gold.
But he isn't all about chic fine dining or Michelin Stars. He's hungry for the unfamiliar, undiscovered microcosms of culture and community.
That insatiable appetite is at the heart of the new documentary City of Gold. Its director, Laura Gabbert, who also joined us for lunch, says she learned to love LA by reading Gold. "He gets you out of your comfort zone, into new neighborhoods, looking for new adventures," she says.
As Gold sees it, there are Chinatowns and Little Italys all over America. But what's different about LA is that many of the immigrants who open up restaurants here are cooking to feed — and please — only themselves and their communities. It's what Gold calls an "anti-melting pot."
That is not to say he loves everything. In the documentary, he points out a Taiwanese place he's been to many times — though he's pretty emphatic about not liking the food there.
"The first time I went there, I was appalled by my lunch," he tells me. "It was my first encounter with bitter melon which, if you haven't had it, it's almost like one of nature's cruel jokes. There's this really piercing bitterness, not bitter like coffee or chocolate, but like cancer medicine."
He goes on: "There were soups with this sort of gelatinized texture, there was vague, unappetizing to me smokiness, there was what I usually translate as stinky tofu — which is tofu that's been fermented and it smells like a particularly foul dumpster on a summer day."
So why'd he keep going back?
"Because I'd look around, the restaurant was crowded, and people were really happy," he says. "And I realized that the food wasn't like this because they were bad cooks."
It was just that the food there wasn't what he was used to eating. "By the time I went back 16 or 17 times, I still didn't love it, but I felt that I understood it, and I understood the context in which it was being served. And I think in a lot of ways, that's more valuable than if I'd just gone in there and made cheap jokes at the expense of the food or I'd given it a bad review because I thought it was bad."
That sort of methodical, contemplative philosophy is why even in this age of crowd-sourced reviewing, Jonathan Gold's writing has never gone stale.
Check out El Parian's Yelp page before dining there and you'll know the birria is "to die for" as one amateur reviewer put it.
But nothing truly conveyed what finally landed on our table: Bowls of steaming rich goat broth, tender mounds of shredded pork and steak charred to perfection.
For a few minutes, eating replaced talking entirely. And while it did, the tune from the backroom jukebox, the soccer match on TV, the gentle hum of fans on a hot day brought to life something Gold had shared earlier that day:
"As much as you would from a novel or a painting or an opera or movie, you can go to a restaurant, and eat a meal, and look at the people around you and smell the smells, and taste the flavors and learn something about the world that has a lot to do with what's on your plate."
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
Not long ago, I headed to an eatery in Downtown LA. It was wedged between a 99-cent store and a boarded up market. Nothing fancy about El Parian, but it was rich in the aroma of fresh tortillas and grilled meat.
Plus, it had the distinction of having been reviewed by the first and only food critique to ever win a Pulitzer Prize. That would be Jonathan Gold. He comes back often and invited us to join him for lunch - more precisely, for goat.
JONATHAN GOLD: Are you all OK with goat?
GOLD: We should all get, like, half-orders of the birria, which is basically like a roast goat stew - one of the best Mexican dishes available in LA at the moment. But if somebody would rather have carne asada, that's, like, I - well I will judge. But I won't judge much.
MONTAGNE: In the restaurant world, Jonathan Gold is a heavy hitter. Get a good review from Gold and you've struck gold. But he isn't mainly about fine dining or Michelin stars. He's hungry for the unfamiliar, the unknown, undiscovered microcosms of culture and community. That insatiable appetite is at the heart of the new documentary "City Of Gold."
Its director - Laura Gabbert - also joined us at El Parian Restaurant to give us a flavor of what LA's chief food critic has done for so many Angelenos.
LAURA GABBERT: I learned to love Los Angeles by reading Jonathan Gold. So I moved here and had a lot of reservations about moving here. And I'd get stuck in traffic and, just - I didn't feel like there was a center. And I think that's true for a lot of Angelenos.
But he gets you out of your comfort zone. And you move into new neighborhoods. And you start looking for your own adventures. And you sort of use his mode of exploration and discovery.
MONTAGNE: In one scene in Gabbert's documentary, Gold - with his trademark suspenders and flyaway ginger hair, now nearly gray -cruises in his Dodge pickup through a part of town known for great Chinese food. Some of it better than what you would find in China.
(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "CITY OF GOLD")
GOLD: There's no end to the fun in the San Gabriel Valley. And this is El Monte proper. Can you - can't you feel the electricity, the excitement in the air? People not from Los Angeles sometimes don't understand the beauty you can find in mini-malls.
That's probably the best dim sum in town at the moment. That's the remaining Chinese Islamic restaurant. Oh, this is the place. This is the place I love. In case you think I love everything, the stuff in that restaurant is absolutely disgusting.
MONTAGNE: As you can tell from that clip in the documentary, Jonathan Gold knows that all big cities have imported cuisines. Of course, there are Chinatowns and Little Italys all over America. What's different about Los Angeles, he believes, is that many of the immigrants who open up restaurants here are cooking to feed and please only themselves and their communities. It's what Gold calls an anti-melting pot.
GOLD: Los Angeles is such a glorious mosaic of different cultures all living by one another.
MONTAGNE: A mosaic - got that - where individual pieces can be ugly as well as beautiful.
One of the places you drive by is a Taiwanese restaurant that you say you've been to many times...
MONTAGNE: ...But that you're pretty - pretty emphatic about actually not liking the taste of the food.
GOLD: It was this place that's gone now. But the first time I went there, I was absolutely appalled by my lunch, right? It was my first encounter with bitter melon, which, if you haven't had it, it's almost like one of nature's cruel jokes because there's this really piercing bitterness. Not bitter like coffee or like chocolate, I mean, like cancer medicine (laughter).
There were soups with this sort of gelatinized texture. There was vague - unappetizing to me - smokinesses (ph). There were - I usually translate it as stinky tofu, which is tofu that's been fermented. And it smells like a particularly foul dumpster on a summer day.
MONTAGNE: So why'd you keep going back?
GOLD: Because I looked around and the restaurant was crowded, and people were really happy. They were there 'cause they wanted to be there. I realized that the food wasn't like this because it - they were bad cooks. My ideas of it were because of my cultural relativism. It wasn't food I was used to eating.
And by the time I'd been back 16 or 17 times, I still didn't love it. I didn't crave the food. You will not find me going out for stinky tofu. But I understood it, and I understood the context in which it was being served. And I think in a lot of ways that's more valuable than if I'd just gone in there and made cheap jokes at the expense of the food or I'd given it a bad review because I thought it was bad.
MONTAGNE: That right there - that methodical, contemplative philosophy - is why even in this age of crowd-sourced reviewing, Jonathan Gold's writing has never gone stale. Again, Laura Gabbert.
GABBERT: I was really struck by just the rigor he brings to his work and the amount of research he does for every single piece and every single restaurant he reviews.
GOLD: You know, if you're going to restaurant and you're having creme brulee for the very first time, you're going to love it, right? 'Cause it's rich and it's sweet and it's dense. And it hits, you know, every single pleasure point that it's possible to hit.
But your opinion of it is going to be different than somebody who's had 150 creme brulees and is able to put it in the context of creme brulees rather than saying, here's this thing that's really nice and delicious.
MONTAGNE: It's true. Check out El Parian's Yelp! page before dining there, and you'll find the birria is to die for - as one amateur reviewer put it. But nothing truly conveyed what finally landed on our table.
That's a half-order? Wow.
Bowls of steaming, rich goat broth, tender mounds of shredded pork and steak charred to perfection.
GOLD: Could you pass the tortillas, please?
MONTAGNE: I'm just copying Jonathan Gold here - a little parsley, not too much, don't need to overdo it.
GOLD: And probably spritz it with some lime.
MONTAGNE: You know the food is good when the eating replaces the talking entirely. And for the few minutes it did, the tune from the back room juke box, the soccer match on TV, the gentle hum of fans on a hot day brought to light something Jonathan Gold shared earlier that day.
GOLD: As much as you would from a novel or a painting or an opera or a movie, you can go to a restaurant and eat a meal and look at the people around you and smell the smells and taste the flavors and learn something about the world that has a lot to do with what's on your plate.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
MONTAGNE: The documentary on food critic Jonathan Gold, directed by Laura Gabbert, is called "City Of Gold." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.