How Food Critic Jonathan Gold Shaped My Views of Los Angeles

Fugetsu-Do 2018

It was long day of attending events and workshops on Japanese-American culture, art, and food. We were exhausted and equally famished. Our appetites were even more unsettled after attending a traditional Japanese Tea Ceremony; a fascinating workshop hosted by Delicious Little Tokyo and the Japanese American Cultural & Community Center that taught us the traditions of Tea Ceremonies in Japan and the Japanese customs to receiving and drinking the ceremonial Matcha Tea crafted by a seasoned Tea Master. While the Matcha Tea satisfied our palate, it was the one piece of Wagashi Mochi that was handed out at the ceremony that stimulated our hunger. Fugetsu-Do Sweet Shop’s Suama Mochi was the freshest, most divine morsel ever to be tasted.

I was taking video of the handcrafted Japanese Mochi at Fugetsu-Do Sweet Shop when a friend called out to me, “Sunny. Sunny!” I looked up and there he was, by the door, with a rather frazzled, shocked looked on his face. He walked slowly towards me holding up his cellphone. “Sunny, Jonathan Gold just died. The food critic died. He was 57 years old.” I was in disbelief of the news. “What?!?!?”, I replied. I was pre-occupied with the gal behind the counter who was intricately wrapping a box of a dozen mixed Mochi items with a sheet of pine green wrapping paper and an even darker string of green ribbon. Another friend pulled out her cellphone only to provide the second sad news of the day. “Yes, it’s true,” she said, “Jonathan Gold had passed away.” The intricately gifted wrapped box of Mochi was then handed to me. “Arigatou gozaimasu” I said. The shocking news finally hit me. We stood there for a few minutes without any words. Silenced in thought. Disbelief.

We strolled back to Japanese Village Plaza. It was a typical Los Angeles heatwave that didn’t seemingly stop anyone from spending time outdoors. There was a long wait for Mitsuru Café and their Imagawayaki, a Sweet Red Bean Cake that is sort of a mini pancake stuffed with a sweetened Red Bean Paste or Anko as they call it in Japan. From what I noticed looking through the café’s window, there was no telling when they were going to make a fresh batch of it or their other Japanese Street food item, Dango (a skewered Sweet and Salty Japanese Mochi). I knew of the Bento Boxes at Nijya Market, which was just across the courtyard. My friends were convinced to go there instead to grab something light to eat.

LA Food Bowl - Sichuan Summit 2018

The minutes that we were inside Nijiya Market and perusing though the now discounted Bento Boxes, my friends and I were still in a deep haze from the tragic news. Mr. Gold had passed away from a Pancreatic cancer. We were at a deep sorrow like anyone from his immediate family and close friends. We talked about Mr. Gold and the many times we, and many of our other friends, drove all over LA to chase down his recommendations for dishes and/or restaurants or just to see him at one of the talk events about food that he either hosted or was in a panel. Did you know that a question from Mr. Gold took about five whole minutes to come out of this mouth? Yes, in between the first word and the questions mark are eloquent words that added even more detail to the question. Somewhere in between the conversation of our memories of Mr. Gold, we were singing versus of ABBA’s Dancing Queen along side the almost tone-deaf Karaoke singer on the stage just across the Nijiya Market entrance. Having followed Food Critic Jonathan Gold feverishly for over well over a decade, pretty much from the time I read that he won that Pulitzer Prize in Journalism, and from his digs at LA Weekly to The Los Angeles Times, I considered myself as a fan or perhaps appropriately termed as one of his Food Groupies.

Oh man, the Japanese Village Plaza was so freakin’ overcrowded like a tin of packed sardines. We squeezed our way through the crowds of people watching the Karaoke singers on the stage. The spectrum of singers were a lot of fun to listen to. They either sang beautifully, poorly, or had the lungs of a Chopper in full throttle on the 101 Freeway like the guy who had the balls to sing his favorite death metal song on the Karaoke stage. He pretty much was in tune the whole entire length of the song. Impressive. Seriously impressive.

We found a spot on an empty bench. We cleverly held our piping hot Bento boxes that were just zapped in a microwave and dove into the food with wooden chopsticks. A friend secretly shared an icy cold can of Japanese beer from a hidden small paper bag. No one would notice our illegal drinking, well, except for those customer who had a bird’s eye view of us from a restaurant.

My friends and I have always been in constant awe with Mr. Gold and his taste palate. When he was excited, we were eagerly excited too. One can keenly notice that Mr. Gold’s obsession was no different than Yelpers, Food Bloggers, and Instagrammers of today. In some sense, he could have paved the way to sharing what you obsess about on social media. Instead, his medium was journalism, which has been around well before the online journalism and social media craze.

When I think about how I admire the talents of Mr. Gold, I can’t help but think about how his writing (and taste buds) shaped my views of Los Angeles.

I’m saddened that there is no other journalist, as genuine as Mr. Gold who, naturally obsesses over food made by skillfully, crafted chefs, cooks, and food purveyors from all walks of life.  He has really opened my eyes towards the neighborhoods that make up Los Angeles. I was never shy of visiting any neighborhood having been exposed to many different cultures since I was a kid. It was endearing of Mr. Gold to write about his positive experience visiting different ethnic neighborhoods to dine on dishes that are made as close to what you can find in the country of origin. However, a typical Angeleno would never drive outside of their immediate neighborhood to dine, would never look past Trader Joes’ or Whole Foods’ namesaked pre-packaged food stuff, or let alone eat from a street cart fashioned with a large wash basin filled with ears of fresh corn bathing in hot water, or buy food from some guy who hardly speaks English who makes the tastiest tacos from a makeshift grill-top at an auto repair shop parking lot after hours.

The typical Angeleno couldn’t eat the best made Thai food in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Thai Town, or a rather tasty Hot Dog somewhere by Crenshaw, because the location (not the food) brings them some discomfort. Hell, some could not adapt to food made “as-is” thinking that the very use of one ingredient (say cilantro) would cause them discomfort and grief. In other words, they focus on their comfort zone as opposed to how the food tastes before they even bother to try it. But the mindset has changed through the years and I could say that it had to do with Mr. Gold’s golden touch in writing about Los Angeles food. He made Los Angeles seem a lot less divided. He helped his readers understand and eventually become more culturally aware of LA’s ethnic diversity. Good food at small mom and pop restaurants were no different than good food prepared by an award-winning chef.

Whether the food was pushed from a street cart, handed to you from a gourmet food truck, or was plated on a dish in a restaurant high atop a skyrise building, the only thing that mattered to Mr. Gold was how the food tasted. That’s what he taught me. He taught me to look past my comfort zone and focus on eating the very best food around the greater LA area. The way to find the best of the best back in the day was through Mr. Gold’s LA Weekly’s 99 Things To Eat In LA Before You Die article. During his stint at LA Weekly, this list was the most anticipated food article to read as it gave us a glorious food map or food bible of Los Angeles so we could seek out our own food adventures. His list reincarnated as Jonathan Gold’s 101 Best Restaurants when he took up post at The Los Angeles Times.

It’s now almost a decade later and the food scene has changed for the better thanks to Mr. Gold. For one thing, Angelenos are brought out of their comfort zone. The densely ethnic neighborhoods are slowly accepting gentrification, which is attracting restaurateurs and chefs to open up eateries in places you’d never expect. Local Food Bloggers from a decade ago are now Food Journalists or running the food-focused online publications and its social media sites. Social media Users (i.e. customers and those in the food industry) are sharing food dishes and dining experiences. YouTube Creators, particularly those who dine and/or travel, are making short videos of their dining experiences and sharing their them as well. There is perhaps a 80% jump in food talks, workshops, seminars, classes, and food and wine festivals in and around the Los Angeles area to fill one’s calendar of activities for at least two, maybe three months in advance. Yes, all this because, Food Critic Jonathan Gold, through his writing, had made himself a visible activist for a more accurate portrayal of Los Angeles dining and how appetizing it really is.

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My Teriyaki Chicken Bento from Nijiya Market was incredibly tasty. The chicken was juicy and succulent. The Teriyaki sauce still had its glossy finish over the bites of meat and just the right amount of short grain white rice was served in the tray. Yes, just enough to curb my hunger pains. While we sat in the thick of the Japanese Village Plaza, my mind wandered to a time in 2010 when food from East LA Taco Trucks and food vendors were all the rage. At the time, I was a member of the LA Foodies Meetup and attended an East LA Taco Crawl. It was something unheard of and way before food tours ever existed in LA. We somehow made it to a taco truck in the late hours of a weeknight in Boyle Heights to eat Chicken Neck Tacos. Of all things, deep fried Chicken Neck Tacos. It was something that Mr. Gold wrote about as THE must-try tacos.

Will LA ever have another quirky yet likable Food Critic with an inquisitive thirst to connect with its Los Angeles food scene and its diverse ethnic food genres? Los Angeles is no stranger to having plenty of food geeks who could possibly be the next local Food Critic, but there is only one who is so revered that filling his shoes would not be an easy task. With that said, I leave you with one of my favorite Jonathan Gold food articles as reprinted/reposted by LA Weekly Magazine. This very article shows the very start of Mr. Gold’s “geekdom” into the food culture of Los Angeles.  https://www.laweekly.com/restaurants/jonathan-gold-the-year-i-ate-pico-blvd-9769336

R.I.P. Mr. Gold.