The passing this week of Jonathan Gold, Los Angeles’s Pulitzer Prize-winning restaurant critic, reminded us of why we have lived in Southern California for more than four decades. When we arrived in L.A. in the 1970s—from New York and Montreal, respectively—the city was known largely for glitter and celebrities but little else. The food scene wasn’t much to write home about, though it was better than the awful cuisine in most of the country. A newcomer was likely to be introduced to Tommy’s Burgers, or perhaps a local taco joint with a menu that hadn’t changed in decades. Fine dining was largely of the stargazing variety—Perino’s, Chasen’s, Musso and Frank—which meant generally so-so food but a bettor’s chance to spot a celebrity.
Jonathan Gold helped to change all that. He was from L.A., and he embraced his inner Angeleno while driving through this vast region in his old truck. He was no aesthete in the model of the New York Times’s Craig Claiborne, who favored fancy restaurants serving small portions. Gold embraced L.A. in its vastness, and if there was too much food on the plate—as long as it was good, hell, why not?
Yet Gold was also a discerning critic of haute cuisine. We eventually found many of our favorite splurge restaurants—Providence, the now-closed Campanile, and Angelini Osteria—through his reviews in either the LA Weekly or the Los Angeles Times, in his book Counter Intelligence, or on KCRW’s Good Food program. These restaurants also reflected L.A.’s growing sophistication as a cultural center. The big difference for Gold was that the food, not the movements of the “in” crowd, assumed the leading role.
Gold made his greatest finds not in Beverly Hills—though he appreciated Nate and Al’s, considering it near the top of the “deli hierarchy”—or on the Sunset Strip, but through his explorations into the long-neglected culinary riches of the not-so-fancy L.A. He found his muse not in dashing restauranteurs backed by big investors but among small, largely ethnic entrepreneurs who, at least initially, made their living feeding their own compatriots. Perhaps his sympathy for these self-starters meant that he didn’t write many negative reviews. Why write about a trek out to Reseda (in west San Fernando Valley) to sample a bad taco or tasteless dumpling? Gold’s knowledge came from trying many places and choosing the best among them. It seemed that he had tried every taco, Thai, and Chinese joint around in search of the perfect barbacoa, noodle, or dumpling. Then he’d tell us all about it in prose that was as much about place as about food. He made the vastness of Los Angeles not just comprehensible, but wonderful.
Gold captured not only a food movement but also a demographic wave. Until the 1960s, greater Los Angeles was an immigration afterthought, a largely white city with marginalized Latino and African-American enclaves. The food reflected the palate of the Midwest, a condition that still prevails in some areas, including near our home in northeastern Orange County. As immigration laws changed, Southern California emerged as a destination, much like New York earlier in the century, for a dazzling array of newcomers. They came from Mexico and Central America, and from the Middle East and Asia. In 1960, Los Angeles County was 80 percent white; in 2014, Caucasians made up barely 30 percent of the population, while Latinos rose to nearly half, and Asians made up nearly 15 percent. This influx turned L.A. into a gourmand’s dream. Gold guided us to restaurants mainly frequented by the natives of their local countries, many located in unglamorous parts of the city, from the San Fernando and San Gabriel Valleys to gritty streets like Pico Boulevard, on which Gold took it upon himself to visit every restaurant at least once.
Most of our favorite places to eat are places that Gold discovered for us. They include Guelaguetza, an Oaxacan restaurant as far removed from conventional mass-market Mexican food as Burger King is from a Parisian steak tartare with frites. Other favorites include Jitlada, a spicy Southern Thai-oriented place in a rundown part of Hollywood that we love to take our New York relatives to experience. More often, when we lived in the Valley, we visited other Gold discoveries such as our go-to takeout joints, Sri Siam in North Hollywood and Dos Arbolitos in North Hills.
But perhaps nothing attracted us, and Gold, more than the Asian food mecca known as the San Gabriel Valley, in the city’s eastern suburbs. Formerly a largely Taiwanese bastion known as “little Taipei,” the area now has an Asian-American population larger than those in Los Angeles proper, San Francisco, and Chicago, and it tops the Asian-American populations of 42 states. It offers a staggering array of diverse tastes. You’ll find the best noodle houses and dim sum joints, as well as high-end seafood restaurants.
When we moved to Orange County three years ago, what we missed most was Gold’s L.A., that eclectic jumble of strip malls, ethnic enclaves, markets, and restaurants of every description. Many Orange County eateries, as is common in newer areas, have all the originality of scripted sitcoms. Yet Gold helped us even here. Unlike some Angeleno sophisticates, Gold went where his truck and his nose took him. He was the journalistic equivalent of Frank Lloyd Wright, who wrote that “after all is said and done, he—the citizen—is really the city. The city is going wherever he goes.”
Orange County has also become a magnet for immigrants, many seeking single-family homes, better schools, and less-congested freeways. In fact, immigration in Southern California is basically stagnant in the old L.A. core but rising quickly in the outer suburbs. In 1960, Orange County was 90 percent white, but today it’s less than 50 percent. The Latino population has grown to more than 30 percent, while Asians now make up almost 20 percent of the population.
Gold gathered the culinary fruits of remarkable diversity in this once-homogeneous suburb. He spotted the few good European restaurants, like Marche Moderne, but had a particularly keen eye for ethnic-driven successes like Taco Maria, an innovative Mexican-influenced spot in Costa Mesa that ranked in his top ten Southern California eateries.
But Gold glittered most in the obscure places. He was our guide to the great Vietnamese strips—Bolsa, Westminster, and Magnolia— brimming with endless pho and hip Asian joints. There are some slightly more elegant restaurants, like Brodard Chateau, a magnet for fine Vietnamese food. One of the more recent discoveries, now a personal favorite, is Irenia, a Filipino eatery in Santa Ana. Here’s Gold describing its charms:
Dilis (small salty fish) is a powerful food, both metaphorically and in its unmistakable pungency, which can water your eyes from across the room. It is by no means a rarity—dilis is among the most common Filipino snacks—but it takes on a special resonance in this Santa Ana dining room, even when you give up and dump them all onto a bowl of rice. Irenia is a modern restaurant, part of the new Filipino food movement flashing through Southern California, but I suspect that the kitchen cares as much about feeding the appetites of its grandmothers and uncles as it does about making the scene. It is not an accident that Irenia is named for the chef’s grandmother.
Like all the places Gold discovered across Los Angeles, Irenia epitomizes the region’s spirit of enterprise, social mobility, and innovation. In the face of regulatory burdens, high taxes, and real estate costs, the people who run these places represent Southern California’s chances for retaining an entrepreneurial ethos.
We hope that others, including those determined to rein in our often-unsightly sprawl, will recognize that expansiveness is key to Southern California’s unique energy. If they do, they will be following in the footsteps of Jonathan Gold, who discovered it first and had a great time getting there.
Photo by Charley Gallay/Getty Images