“Squishy or swank?” was the first question that Jonathan Gold, the Pulitzer-prize winning food critic, exuberant prose stylist, and champion of Los Angeles, who died on Saturday, at the age of fifty-seven, asked me in advance of our first meal. In the ensuing year, I ate dozens of meals with him, all over the county, stretching the reporting of a five-thousand-word Profile to absurdly self-indulgent lengths. The meals, typically, were cheap and transporting, and the education was enduring. Travelling with Gold—in a dark-green pickup that he clobbered with miles, twenty thousand of them in a typical year—you could learn the secret history of Los Angeles. On the way back from a lunch that included cartilaginous pig’s ear in Rowland Heights, he pointed out the farm where the original Hass avocado was grown. After blood soup, we passed Phil Spector’s castle. In Koreatown, between a tea shop and a “porridgeteria,” he showed me the low-browed buildings designed by Julia Morgan, the distinguished early-twentieth-century architect who designed Hearst Castle and, he said, invented the mini-mall, the site of so many of his food epiphanies. “Speaking of disconnect,” he later wrote to me in an e-mail, “it just occurred to me that I loathe malls almost as much as I love mini-malls. Odd.”
After the Profile came out, we became friends. “If you want to go out sometime for a meal involving neither squirming tentacles nor impaled genitalia, I would be pleased,” he wrote to me—pure generosity from a busy person devoted to his family and who already had an endless list of people to dine with. I got to know his wife, Laurie Ochoa, a newspaper editor—often his editor—and his children, visiting them in Pasadena, where the staircase was lined with Pisa-like piles of books, and, in the kitchen, you might find fresh rue. (Gold was the kind of father who woke at dawn to make his daughter snacks from a recipe by Apicius, in Latin, to take on a field trip to an exhibit about Pompeii, and was always home well before sundown during the week of Hanukkah to assuage his son.) When my first child was a week past due, I asked him to recommend an Indian place. He responded, “But what kind of Indian? (You knew I was going to say that.)” Then he rattled off a Kerala-style place, another that had “Mumbai truck-stop food,” and a third that he said was “London-slummy.” Several weeks later, my baby had his first meal out—dim sum in the Valley with Gold, Ochoa, and their kids. My son has since become a boy who likes to have a food adventure when Gold’s “101 Essential Restaurants” list comes out in the Los Angeles Times.
Gold was a thinker first, an eater second, planning his forays with the deliberation of the performance artist he almost became. (While a student at the University of Southern California, he took a class with the artist Chris Burden, and later worked as his assistant. One of his projects involved eating a bagel from every bakery in the city, which is how he discovered Brooklyn Bagel Factory, whose owners, he told me while sitting in the parking lot, had followed the Dodgers to L.A.) In his early twenties, he decided, in the course of a year, to eat at every restaurant on Pico Boulevard, an east-west corridor that goes from downtown to the beach. He made it from downtown, where he was a proofreader at a legal publication, as far as Century City, encountering along the way marinated octopus, Salvadoran pupusas, Guatemalan pepian, and Ecuadorian llapingachos. “Pico, in a certain sense, was where I learned to eat,” he wrote later. “I also saw my first punk-rock show on Pico, was shot at, fell in love, bowled a 164, witnessed a knife fight, took cello lessons, raised chickens, ate Oki Dogs and heard X, Ice Cube, Hole and Willie Dixon perform (though not together) on Pico.” That open but directed urban wandering formed the template for his career. A single variable—a road, a dish—could frame a lifetime of experience. For most of his life, Gold rarely left Los Angeles, let alone the United States (summers in Italy aside). He learned the world by reading and eating in his home town.
Professionally, Gold was known for procrastinating; a completist, he wouldn’t write until he had consumed enough to perceive the ideal form of whatever it was he wanted to describe. If that meant twenty-seven shots of espresso in a day, so be it: his was the authority of the mouth. It gave structure to his days. For decades, he regularly wrote restaurant reviews: for the L.A. Weekly, where he had started off as a music journalist, covering hip-hop in the eighties; at the L.A. Times, where Ruth Reichl hired him to be the Valley restaurant critic, in 1987, and where he returned after the Weekly was sold, several years ago; for Gourmet and other “slicks.” (He pretty much went wherever Ochoa went.) In 2000, he published “Counter Intelligence,” a collection of his restaurant reviews from the L.A. Weekly, which replaced the Thomas Guide as the orientation for newcomers. He was constantly besieged by offers to write another book. When it came to other people’s work, he was a first-album, first-poetry-collection man; anyway, what he really wanted was to write a novel. (Maybe this explains how a writer so magnificently productive—the Los Angeles Times alone published more than fifteen hundred of his pieces—could consider himself blocked.) Finally, a couple of years ago, he contracted to write a memoir, “Breakfast on Pico.” He chose Ecco Press, because of its poetry list.
With a Miltonic capacity for simile—he once figured Mexico City-style carnitas as “loose and juicy, spilling out of the huge $1.99 tacos like Beyoncé out of a tight jumpsuit”—and a range of references from literature, contemporary art, and popular music, Gold liberated the restaurant review from fussy solemnity, punked it up. He relished paradox but was never, past his early thirties, cruel. There are a million mini-Golds out there today; you almost can’t write a restaurant review without being in his debt. But his greatest accomplishment, the thing that will form his legacy, is that he changed the way that people—Angelenos included—regard Los Angeles. His work coincided with, and in some ways drove, the sloughing off of the old plastic wrapping. As he described the city, its people, food, music, and style, he made it, and it became, real.