All of Los Angeles — real Los Angeles — can be found in Jonathan Gold. The Los Angeles Times food critic spends much of director Laura Gabbert’s documentary, “City of Gold,” driving the city’s streets in search of culinary pleasures, mostly obscure and lowbrow — from slime eels to hot dogs, and everything in between. Gold can put a hole-in-the-wall restaurant on the culinary map, but the geography that actually matters here is that of the city’s diverse ethnic neighborhoods, including Tehrangeles, Little Ethiopia, Koreatown and the Chinese communities of the San Gabriel Valley. Gold’s job is one part professional mouth, and one part demographer of a changing city.
That’s the takeaway Gabbert wants to leave her viewers with, but they’ll also come away with a nice list of dining recommendations for their next trip to L.A. The critic dishes out recommendations for Thai (Jitlada), Ethiopian (Meals by Genet), Korean tacos (Kogi) and chili fries (Tom’s #5), and the shots of lovingly prepared Mexican and Chinese food will make your stomach rumble.
Gold, who shed his anonymity before the film’s Sundance Festival debut last year, looks like the subject of a Flemish painting and eats like a boar. As the first food critic to win the Pulitzer Prize (in 2007 while writing for the L.A. Weekly), he has been an obsessive chronicler of immigrant cuisine, which has become an obsession of foodies (a word he probably hates). Basically, if you’re a young nonminority urbanite who knows congee from kitfo, you have Jonathan Gold to thank, in some small way. For the immigrant community, he is a kingmaker. Gabbert captures several stories of American transplants cooking their native food and struggling, until white people magically appear in their restaurants one day, led by Gold’s reviews. All of a sudden, they’re able to send their kids to college and live the American dream.
But there is little tension in the film, beyond Gold’s struggles with deadlines and his environmentalist brother’s mild disapproval of him eating rare and endangered animals, a practice Gold has mostly disavowed. Gabbert devotes too much time in the second half of the film — which closely follows the approach of a 2009 New Yorker profile of Gold — on Gold’s early years. It could have delved deeper into more pressing questions about contemporary food culture, such as the fetishization of so-called “ethnic” cuisine and the dwindling influence of the critic. The film is most interesting when it uses Gold to tell the story of Los Angeles’s diversity, rather than the story of the most important stomach in Los Angeles.
Still, it is a colorful and loving tribute to the kinds of restaurants that food critics once ignored — and a few fancy places as well. (One great moment: Celebrity chef Ludo Lefebvre’s involuntary angry eye twitch when Gold walks into Trois Mec, unannounced.) Gold proselytizes about the beauty of a strip mall and grunts with pleasure at the first hit of spice from a Thai soup. He doesn’t take notes while he eats: “You could take notes when you’re having sex, too,” he says, “but you’d sort of be missing out on something.” For devotees of life’s other primal pleasure — eating — “City of Gold” is a guided trip around the world, without ever leaving one city.
R. At ArcLight Bethesda and Landmark’s Atlantic Plumbing Cinema. Contains some coarse language. 91 minutes.