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Arts & Life

Like The Man Himself, 'City Of Gold' Skips The Pretense — But You'll Still Be Left Hungry

Goro Toshima
Sundance Selects
Jonathan Gold stands at the ordering window of a taco truck in Laura Gabbert's 'City of Gold.'

Once upon a time, when every city had newspapers that mattered, a great columnist could help a city define and understand itself. Great columnists got their readers – and their cities – talking about who and what they are. Writers like Herb Caen in San Francisco, Jimmy Breslin in New York, Tom Gavin in Denver.

Jonathan Gold of The Los Angeles Times seems to be that kind of writer – and he does it through food. Not the fine dining, newspaper restaurant critic kind. Gold writes about food trucks, taco joints in strip malls – and all sorts of not-upscale restaurants.

Newspapers traditionally celebrate mainstream, dominant culture; Gold is making it obvious – and delicious – that the city of Los Angeles is not just Rodeo Drive and neither is it the cultural wasteland people like to claim. LA is marvelous cultural mix.

As Laura Gabbert's documentary City of Gold movie shows, Jonathan Gold comes from the tradition that starts with Calvin Trillin, a writer for The New Yorker and the author of American Fried and Alice, Let's Eat, who's interested more in eating than in presentation and décor. Trillin has a fabulous sense of humor. Gold also likes eating more than ambiance and pretension, he enjoys his food obsessions. Gold once tried to eat in every single restaurant on Pico Boulevard, a street that runs for a good 15 miles through many LA neighborhoods. From the looks of the store fronts, none of those places demanded that male diners wear ties.

Gold is the kind of guy who would know that a certain Chinese restaurant uses honey instead of molasses in its Peking Duck, or that one taco wagon uses tortillas made yesterday instead of today — and what that means in terms of taste. He's also the kind of guy cooks holler out to when he enters their place. He likes chili fries and hot dogs as well as intimidating sauces and seafood.

Gold is a fascinating man. He's literate and musical. His appetites for food and culture are huge. He appreciates people and finds the range of human beings exhilarating. He's not the kind of writer who expects restaurants and chefs to meet his standards. As many witnesses in the movie testify, Gold observes and listens – so he learns about cuisines and tastes – and then reports to his readers.

Most of all, as City of Gold shows, Jonathan Gold has mapped the eating habits of a good part of the city of Los Angeles. He knows that there's really no such thing as "Mexican food." Instead, he writes about where to get various styles of food from Mexico, whether from Michoacan or Oaxaca. Gold knows where the center for Ethiopian or Iranian cooking is.

To many people, Los Angeles is big, sprawling and incoherent. Jonathan Gold, through his eating explorations, gives the city a genuine coherence. He's given credibility to the incredible range of ethnicities in the city, and also the reverse – he's helped people in those communities appreciate their own cultures.

Jonathan Gold is not a great writer, but he's sincere and smart, and he writes with an important sense of purpose. It's the same with the movie City of Gold, built on the uninspired documentary formula you see all the time – talking heads alternate with pictures that illustrate the talk. There's no powerful visual sense here that opens up the life and work of Jonathan Gold.

City of Gold is sincere and driven by a sense of mission. It describes an important career and important cultural life, but it doesn't leave you desperate to get those tacos.

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