LOS ANGELES — Jonathan Gold, who this week became the first restaurant critic to win a Pulitzer Prize, is giving directions to the Mexican food joint he has chosen for lunch. “I’ll be the chubby white guy with long red hair,” he says. “You can’t miss me.”
He is, as promised, Falstaffian in proportion, but he carries his girth well. He looks like a man who has eaten professionally, and with tremendous gusto, for two decades. He is wearing a black leather jacket and a faded yellow T-shirt that reads “Evil Taco.” He does have long henna hair streaked with gray and a perpetual squint. He’d make a good pirate.
The lunch place, which he is planning to review soon, is classic Jonathan Gold, meaning it is a mom-and-pop dive in the working-class neighborhood of Highland Park, a cafe called El Huarache Azteca, which boasts of its “el Chicano dog,” and its sopas, tortas, tacos, pambasos, sincronizadas and platanos fritos. It is next door to an auto body shop. It is classic Gold in that the 46-year-old critic has made it his mission to discover and revel in the kaleidoscopic ethnic culinary delights of Los Angeles, to search out food that is a window into the city’s crazy-quilt immigrant soul, and Gold keeps eating and eating and eating, on an anthropological quest to answer the questions: Who are we? And what is for dessert?
Almost immediately he is ordering. You would be wise to just let him go. When this correspondent first arrived in L.A., a source pressed into his hungry mitts a dog-eared copy of Gold’s book, “Counter Intelligence: Where to Eat in the Real Los Angeles,” a collection of his columns of the same name from LA Weekly, and for many a foodie it’s a treasure map to the best sea urchin gonads, grilled chicken knees and cucumber mint gelato in town, and sometimes, in the world. The Pulitzer committee praised Gold “for his zestful, wide ranging restaurant reviews, expressing the delight of an erudite eater.”
Today, Gold chooses huaraches (a masa turnover, like a fried bread, shaped like a shoe sole) with a succulent beef brain, a green mole that is zesty and creamy in the same bite, and chilaquiles; and the plates are surrounded with steaming rice, and beans with a little cheese that sigh, “comfort, my friend,” all washed down with a gallon-size plastic foam cup of fresh watermelon juice.
Over a leisurely hour, we inhale the stuff, shoving the plates back and forth, shoveling the aromatic meats down with plastic forks as Gold offers, “you gotta try this,” and at one moment, produces a wonderful burp.
Gold began his journalism as a classical music critic, as he had studied composing at UCLA. “Opera,” he says, “was an obsession.” He is an accomplished cellist, and in the punk heyday of the late 1970s, he played in punk bands, including Tank Burial, “which was the heaviest name we could think of.”
From his biography on the Pulitzer Web site: “He began to write about food for the Weekly in 1984, when the paper’s former owner admired a piece he’d written about health insurance and invited him to edit the biannual restaurant guide.” His main perch over the years has been LA Weekly, which his wife, Laurie Ochoa, now edits, though he has also worked at California and Los Angeles magazines, the Los Angeles Times, and Gourmet, under editor Ruth Reichl, a close friend. “If she goes to Cat Fancy magazine, I’d follow her,” he says.
What is the life of the food critic? Harder (arteries) than it looks. During scouting trips, Gold may hit six or seven restaurants in a day. “I can tell at the first bite whether or not it stinks,” he says. There was a recent L.A. Times exposé on 400 restaurants that had received failing grades from health inspectors. “I’d been to 110 of them,” he says.
In how many eateries has he dined, just in L. A.? He can only guess: 5,000? 10,000? He scours the ethnic newspapers of L.A., written in Farsi, Khmer, Vietnamese: “I don’t understand a word of it, but they list an address and I go.” Often, he just drives around in his pickup truck and swerves to the curb to sample a couple of dishes. Crowds, he warns, can be deceiving. “I know people who will go down the street for a Chinese restaurant because it’s 50 cents cheaper.”
For a piece on the best Korean food in Los Angeles, he went to 150 restaurants (he thinks there are about 700 in the county). “They are freakin’ amazing,” he says, “the best Korean food outside of Seoul.” He went to a Taiwanese restaurant in the San Gabriel Valley 17 times — and he hated the food — “but I could tell what they were doing was impeccable. I wanted to understand that.”
In addition to diners and dives, Gold reviews the most expensive food destinations in Los Angeles — and he has taken some of them down. “And they deserved it,” he says. Unlike many food critics, Gold does not give stars or grades. “I’m more descriptive than evaluative,” he says. Gold confesses that his lifelong search is to find another word for “salty.”
From one of his winning reviews: “Do I love The Lodge for its double-fisted Tanqueray martinis or for the thick-cut pepper bacon put out like peanuts at the bar? For the big chunks of blue cheese in the house chopped salad or for the onion rings as golden as the bangles on a Brahmin woman’s arm? For the dripping-rare New York steak or for the bone-in rib-eye as big as some models of compact car? For the sommelier, Caitlin Stansbury, who seems to purr like a cat when you order her favorite Madiran or Spanish Syrah on the wine list?”
His favorites? “I’d eat anything,” he says, “though I am particular to Chinese,” a cuisine of many faces that soars in L.A., “but my favorite food of all is really, really expensive French cuisine.” Oh, and he knows his wine.
The best restaurants in America? Gold says New York, hands down. Best foodie locale in the world? Gold votes for Singapore. But he praises Los Angeles as the best city to eat Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Armenian, Thai, Vietnamese and Mexican (close runner-up: Chicago). He credits L.A. with the invention of Asian fusion, the California pizza, and resurgence of high-end “comfort food,” the $26 meatloaf of Wolfgang Puck. He has at home 3,000 cookbooks. “I don’t have one Lithuanian cookbook, I have several.” He is also a solid home cook. He does Italian (and visits Umbria every year, “best butchers in the world”). “I’ve memorized Marcella Hazan,” he says of the classic Italian cookbook author.
After he won the Pulitzer on Monday, he downed several goblets of Champagne. Then he and his wife went to Pizzeria Mozza, the red-hot oven on Melrose run by celebrity chef Mario Batali and Nancy Silverton (of Campanile fame), a friend of his wife’s. He recalls a great bottle of Lambrusco. Then on to Lou, a new wine bar run by Lou Amdur, the husband of New York Times film critic Manohla Dargis, “and then more Champagne.”
Our bill at El Huarache Azteca comes to $22.13 plus tip. Gold apologizes that we didn’t eat at the Italian masterpiece Valentino, where we could have stuck The Washington Post with a $250 tab, minimum. No matter. As we’re leaving, Gold keeps the recommendations coming. The most incredible Vietnamese spring rolls? The best taco cart? The finest martini? Here’s a critic you can eat with.